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Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Goodbyes 

We're back in England now. Jo and I returned in July and we have settled into life in London. We've had a lot of things to arrange so I haven't had time to update this blog. Time to catch up ...

Saturday 26th June and Sunday 27th -- Goodbye to Massawa
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One more trip down to the coast. We've decided to cycle down, as we did all those months ago shortly after we had arrived in Eritrea.

After a night at the Freedom pension we wake before dawn and set off just as the sun begins to rise. It's an easy cycle but the air is chill and my lungs hurt as I take the first few gulps and pedal off.

We wind down the mountain road as the air gradually warms, the cool, clear taste of it refreshing now as our muscles ease into the gentle exercise. I love this time of day: I love the optimism and fresh purity of the new day, and the sharp clarity of the light. An exhilirating ride gentle down to bar 16 where we hope to get some breakfast.

Unfortunatley, the cafe is closed. It is too early. No problem though: we have brought a supply of the ubiquitous Abu Walad biscuits -- sweet, tasteless sandwich biscuits imported from Saudi Arabia -- and a bottle of water so we stop by the road side to refuel. As we eat and drink, there's a movement on the mountainside further down the road. A baboon appears. It clambers down to the roadside, glances nervously up and down, then crosses over the empty road and squats on the other side, looking back where it came from. More baboons appear, half monkey, half dog as they clamber on all fours down the slope. A trickle at first, the procession becomes a river as dozens of baboons flow down the slope, cross the tarmac and continue further down. There are slender females, many carrying tiny babies that cling to their backs. They are marshalled by watchful males: huge in comparison, their broad shoulders turning from side to side as they survey the landscape for danger with frowns on their faces. They have noticed Jo and I, as we creep slowly closer for a better view, but they don't appear to regard us as a threat. I'm glad of that: the males inparticular have impressive jaws, mandibles that flash huge canines as they yawn their disdain.

While we are watching in fascination a truck trundles up the road. The baboons stop to let it pass, waiting patiently by the roadside then continuing on their way. The truck driver leans out as he passes us. "Look! Monkeys!" he cries. His enthusiasm is great.

We continue our cycle, passing through the pretty town of Nefasit and finally arriving in Ghinda. It's warm again here, but the vegetation hasn't completely disappeared yet so it is still fairly green. A juice and a panino and then we put our bikes onto a bus and head off.

When we get to Massawa, it's hot, but not too much. The weather report the day before had shown 47 degrees celsius so we were expecting it to be very hot but it's actually surprisingly bearable. So bearable in fact that we decide we'll cycle the five kilometres or so to the beach. A foolish error: when we get onto the main road the wind picks up. It's a scorching, blasting wind that carries sand with it to torment our skin, mouths and eyes. When we turn off the road, the wind gets worse and we are sweating and struggling against the corroding wind, under a relentless sun. Jo is getting sick: the ride is exhausting her and the heat and dust are making her feel ill. We stop a few times along the way, finally collapsing under a shelter just a few minutes from the hotel. After fifteen minutes rest, drink and biscuits, we continue on, refreshed but still parched and hungry. It is a massive relief to arrive at the hotel. After some food, we spend the rest of the day dipping in the sea and chilling out.

The next day we get up before dawn once again, to watch the sun come up over the Red Sea. Sitting on the shore in white plastic chairs, with the tide swilling close by our feet, we chat and look out to sea as the milky light solidifies into day. Cloud cover obscures the sun but diffuses its effect so that all the landscape and objects around us seem to brighten by themselves. There is no definable light source so the effect is similar to turning up the brightness on a screen. When then sun finally breaks through, and the cloud cover starts to dissolve, we take a stroll along the beach.

Birds skit along the beach, perhaps looking for the hermit crabs that scuttle across the sand to pop themselves and their procured white shells into the safety of small holes they had burrowed prviously. They all have white shells, these crabs. I wonder if there is a "fashion" element to their choice of abode: perhaps their choice affects their mating prospects. The birds are busy little black and white things, a bit bigger than a starling. They prod their straight dagger bills at the sand in between zipping to and fro along the strand.

Further along the beach, towards the mangroves that have been planted in an attempt at providing new habitat, there are several poles driven into the sand, washed by the incoming tide. On one of the poles is an eagle. It has just caught a fish and is holding it under its talons while it pecks at the flesh. The eagle is not far out, and the gradient is shallow here, so we are able to get close enough to watch the eagle at its work.

And so we say goodbye to Massawa. This may be the last time we ever visit the place.

Goodbye Eritrea
---------------

The next two weeks are our last in Eritrea. I spend my time in Keren saying goodbye to people. One last night out at the Keren hotel and Estif's (another favourite cafe): a night of beer and companionship with my friends Isak, Samuel, Alex and Steve. I spend the weekend in Asmara with Jo and then we both head up to Keren to pick up my things, with Semerai, the VSO driver.

I'd packed everything up, so we just have to load the car, then I head round the corner to Isak's. He was in the middle of wriring a message because he thought he would miss me. I hug him, Barhed and Esrom. It's been fine up until now. I've been concentrating on the logistics of moving away, and making the most of our last couple of weeks in the country but now, now that this is the last time I will see them before I go, now that this may be the very last time I ever see them, now I can't hold back. I walk away from Isak and into Jo's arms and burst out crying. He and his family have been great friends to me. They have welcomed me into their home, helped me settle in and solve any problems I have had, made sure I was never lonely. Most of all, Isak has been a great friend. I will always miss our evenings drinking coffee, eating injera, having a beer in the local bar or just sneaking off to my house for a crafty cigarette while we talk about culture, news and people, and laugh and joke. I will always keep in touch and he will always be a great friend.

We stop for food at the new hotel on the outskirts of Keren. There is a moment of crisis when I think I've lost my ring. I wear two now: an heirloom from my Grandfather and a silver band to mark my engagement to Jo. I have had many adventures in Eritrea but the greatest of them all was meeting Joanna and falling in love. So now we are going to get married. But I think I've lost my ring and I panic. I'm on the point of breakdown at Semerai's car. It's been too much: saying goodbye to Isak and now losing my engagement ring and I'm about to lose control when I find it, caught among some papers I'd been carrying. From that point, for most of the journey to Shimagus Lalai, I'm shaking like a leaf.

We get to Shimangus and Jo has to go through what I've just been through. She takes it more calmly than me, but Hadas is beside herself with upset. She cries and hugs Joanna. Meanwhile Rubka looks on from her balcony, strangely detached. Perhaps she finds it hard to express herself in the way that Hadas does so naturally. It is a perfect example of the differences in the characters.

And so it comes to an end. One more night at a good restaurant in Asmara, one more night of beers with some of the VSOs then we take our midnight flight to England via Frankfurt. We leave the meagre lights of Asmara to land about 90 minutes later in the incredible lattice of Dubai, bordered by fountains. Then, after a long while, we finally take off for Europe and our adventure is over.


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Thursday, July 01, 2004

The Whole Hog 

Big Pig
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A VSO party at Terje's! Always a good bet for great food.

This one is extra special because Terje has been given three pigs in return for a favour. There is a community of doctors from Cuba here and some of them have volunteered to butcher and cook the piggies.

From what I've been told, they sliced each pig from chin to tail then laid them open onto hot stones and cooked them there. The process takes hours and results in very fatty but very tender meat. Delicious!

Being Cuban, the doctors dance all night long and leave the rest of us exhausted.

Martyrs Day
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June 20th is the day when Eritrea remembers the people that died during the thirty year struggle for independence and the more recent border conflict with Ethiopia.

June 20th is also Jo's birthday.

On Saturday 19th the commemoration starts. In the evening the shops all close and candles are lit in windows and doorways. There is an eerie quiet in the side streets once the shutters have come down. Once we get to Liberation Avenue, we realise where all the people have gone. The street is empty of traffic and full of people walking slowly up and down, carrying candles. Very few bars or restaurants are open so the noise is subdued, apart from the music playing over loudspeakers outside the Ministry of Education, accompanying an art display. A stone relief, about 10 feet high, depicts tragedy under the Ethiopians: a woman is being run over by a tank in the foreground while others are being summarily slaughtered in the background. In front of the sculpture is a tableau featuring a prone mannekin and his overturned bicycle. Blood from the mannekin mingles with paint spilled from the pot he was carrying. I take it he has been shot. Perhaps this was a famous incident but I'm not sure.

The crowd don't seem particularly morose and, when we get to the Blue Nile for a pizza, the atmosphere is fine. Nobody's drinking beer though, and I don't think it's being served anywhere. It's a time for low-key respect and observance.

On Martyrs' Day / Jo's Birthday itself we decide to retreat to a couple of VSO houses and watch the last two Lord of the Rings films. When we emerge, blinking, the bars have reopened.

Hadida
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A trip to see Tom and Fliss in the village of Hadida, about 30 Km from Decamhare.

I don't much like Decamhare. Of all the towns we have seen it is the one with the least charm and character. It is basically a straight tarmac road with lots of quite seedy looking bars.

We get there about 3pm on Saturday 26th July. Too late fro the bus to Hadida: there is a queue but after an hour and a half or so of waiting and a subsequent attempt at hitching we give up and resign ourselves to staying in Decamhare for the night. We find an okay pension ("The Denden") then head off for food at the Bana Hotel. The food's very good, the service is quick and efficient and the people are very friendly. A very atypical Eritrean restaurant. There's also an old geezer in the corner who's dancing and singing and pretending to take photographs with the radio he's carrying around his neck, so the place even has entertainment.

When we get backi to the hotel we're told we have to go down to the police station to register. This is quite common. The guy from the hotel leads us across town to the anonymous block of the police station. There, a friendly copper in jeans and muscle vest examines our residence permits and records our details. In Eritrea people are known by their first name then their father's first name, then their grandfather's first name. When hee asks us for our father's name we naturally give our surnames but when he asks for our grandfather's name we're a bit flummoxed. "Gavin Elkington Elkington and Joanna Hartigan Hartigan"? We decide to give our mothers' maiden names instead because the explanation would be too much hassle.

Next morning, after breakfast back at the Bana Hotel, we're on our way to Hadida. We leave about 10 o'clock and arrive at about 11.30, having overshot slightly because neither of us realised the bus continued past the village. A little bit of scouting around then Tom and Fliss appear from the midst of their school closing ceremony and, after watching a bit of prize-giving, Tom takes us up to their house.

They live in a hidmo with a more modern concrete block built onto the side. Tom sleeps in the hidmo on a beed moulded from mud and dung, Fliss sleeps in the more conventional; bed in the "house". It's wonderfully cosy. There is not a straight line in the whole hidmo structure. Mud mouldings provide shelves, seating and storage containers for grain that form one of the walls. These containers are about four feet high, forming the top two thirds of a dividing wall. They receive their grain in the top and deliver it via a bunghole at their base. Unfortunately, they are full of cockroaches instead of grain at the moment.

Tree trunk pillars hold up a tree trunk roof from which bits of mud and insects drop periodically. Blankets and pillows cushion the mud settee. The place smells of earth, wood and the gentle smoke from the candles. It's cool during the day and warm at night -- a much better insulator than the modern houses. We sit and chat -- Tome, Fliss, Jo and I -- and joke and laugh and drink beer and gin. A lovely night.

On the Monday we emerge blinking into the morning then make our way back to Decamhare. Another queue in Decamhare so we put our bags in place then have a Coke in a nearby cafe. After about half an hour a man appears at the head of the queue and starts issuing tickets along the line so I jump up and take my place next to our bags just in case he reaches us, although I don't hold out much hope because it looks as if there is more than a busful ahead of us judging by the line of stones. To keep a place in a queue, people will often use a stone. This strikes me as a daft system in a country where there are stones everywhere. Sometimes its impossible to tell if a stone has been placed deliberatle or if it just happens to be one of the many stones that litter the bus station anyway. Also, stones are quite hard to distinguish from one another. So, when the ticket man is doing his ticket job a crowd of people mob him to complain that he has passed over their stone or that he has given a ticket to someone whose stone was behind theirs. It's a ripe situation for a comedy sketch.

Fortunately we're in the first busload and get on our way to Asmara quickly then out to Shimangus Lalai for wine and Thai curry. (Vegetables in a packet mix Thai sauce, courtesy of one of Jo's friends.)

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Tuesday, June 22, 2004

The bastard killed the dog.

The little puppy on the compound would come up to greet me and dance around my feet when I got back from work. He would nip at my legs and tug at my sarong whenever I went across the compound to the toilet. If I stopped and turned round he would look up at me with mischievous eyes and cock his head in a "Well? Are you going to give in and play with me then?" look. His ribs poked through his tick-infested breast and his legs seemed too thin to support him as he wobbled unsteadily about the compound. His bark was pleading, an almost perfect Walt Disney cartoon "rowf" and he'd use it whenever a cat or other stranger came close. I was the only person he would voluntarily approach. Everybody else would kick at him if he got too near. He was maybe four months old. And now he's dead.

The bastard killed him.

I came back from work on Friday 11th June and there was a dead chicken lying in the middle of the compound. It wasn't bloody, and the chickens had been sick, so I assumed it had caught whatever virus was going around. I told Berhani, Gabriella's husband, and thought nothing of it. Later, while Isak was round for a chat, Daniel returned. He's in his early twenties, a relative of Mama Gabriella's and he's currently living at her house. Isak and I carried on chatting until we heard the puppy yelping. It's often getting kicked at and nothing I've said has stopped anybody so I assumed it was that. But the yelping continued and got louder and louder and more desperate. Isak got up and went ouside to see what was going on. I heard him shouting in Tigrinya while the puppy continued to cry. Then then welping stopped and there was silence. Isak came back into my house. "He's killed it." Isak couldn't stay, he was too angry. He just said that he would come back later when he had calmed down. As I went out into the compound with him there was Daniel, sitting by the side of my house with a big grin on his face.

The murderous bastard was actually enjoying himself.

I scowled at him and went inside. The rest of that night I ran through what I could have done to save the dog, and what I could do to Daniel in revenge. But it's all futile. I didn't think he would ever kill the puppy. I might have saved it that time if I'd gone out sooner but I think he would have killed it when I wasn't there. Finally, the puppy's life was miserable: it was starved and kicked and tied up and ticks were hanging from its body. There is nobody here that I could trust to treat a dog well, nor anybody to turn to who could deal with its tormentors. Nevertheless, I feel weak and impotent. I feel sick that I sat in my room while the bastard beat a helpless, harmless puppy to death.

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Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Mood Swings 

Morning Moods
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I wake up at 5.30. There's no water so I take a bucketful from the barrel and squat in a wide, shallow bowl, soaping my body then rinsing using a small plastic jug. My bath.

Before I start to wash I light the kerosene burner for tea; eight wicks around a central column just big enough for the kettle, with a wheel control to raise and lower the wicks. The smell of burning kerosene wafts through the house. When I finish my wash the kettle is boiled so I tip a small quantity of leaves into the strainer and pour through them into a little glass cup. In Eritrea I generally drink my tea weak without milk or sugar so I pour half a cup through the leaves then top up with plain water.

The water from the wash joins the old dish-water from yesterday in the 'dirty' bucket. I'll use this to flush the toilet. The bucket stinks: I will clean it out with bleach one day soon.

While the tea cools to drinking temperature I visit the shop next door to the compound to see if there's any bread today. I'm in luck and return with two fresh rolls. I squat on my favourite stool -- very roughly cut wooden stumps slotted together and upholstered with twine -- and chop a couple of bananas into the open rolls, then spread a thin layer of jam to complete the meal.

Sitting outside my rooms, on the verandah. Dust has swirled whirlpool patterns that overlay the black and white stars of the tiles. Through the rough, corroded cement circles decorating the verandah wall I can see the emaciated back of Mama Gabriella's forsaken puppy. The poor thing is underfed and brutally treated; a plaything for her little nephew who pulls the dog about while the other members of the family kick it if it comes near. Rosina, Mama Gabriella's daughter, has left it here because it barks at evryone in her compound. I've tried to explain that it barks at them because they kick it but she ignored me. It is sick with hunger but refuses any food I offer it. Ticks hang bloated from its fur.

Over the wall I can see the chickens pecking fussily for tidbits and insects. One of the chickens is sick and sits just moving its beak, opening and closing silently it looks like it is gasping for air. The three ducks wander from one side of the compound to the other and back again, the two females langourously pursued by the male, his ugly red-blotched head waving in seduction. Meanwhile the wind brings dust, spinning into a haze. The sun is a liquid mirage beyond the hills.

The Neem tree in the next-door compound is full of rich leaves and the yellow smudge of weaver birds. They fill the air with their coarse song; the sound of a finger rubbed along a stretched balloon. Beyond, a donkey brays desperately. Like a baby's cry, it's impossible to ignore and heartbreaking to hear. The occasional cockerel competes with the early morning call of the delivery van that brings rocks to a neighbour's new wall. When the rocks are unloaded the ground shakes and thunder fills the air.

The smell of the morning is the smell of smoke and dust. Dung rises up on the warming air and mingles with burning charcoal. Coffee is a major part of the culture here but, unlike in Europe, it is not a morning habit. Coffee and the accompanying incense and popcorn are midday and evening smells.

Hafti Gabriella is up and about, heating charcoal to start on the day's cooking. Her little girl Fedehawit calls over to me, "Gabn! Gabn!" and I wave back. I'm sure she knows how to pronounce my name properly. She nurtures her cuteness like the commodity it is.

I'm reading a book, but actually I'm watching the sights, listening to the sounds and picking up the smells. Breakfast finished and teeth cleaned, I pack up for work and set off on my bike with a smile on my face.

The Neem Tree
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The Neem tree was imported from its native India. It is becoming very popular on this continent for several reasons. It is an evergreen and grow quickly and vigorously despite the poor soil and dry, hot climate. It produces a natural insecticide that is said to disturb the nervous systems and inhibit the growth of insects, most importantly the mosquito. It might well work because we have had very few mosquitos on my compound and there's a Neem tree growing next door.

Finally, and most importantly, it is reputed to have amazing medical properties. The leaves, fruit, seeds, bark and roots are said to cure ailments such as psoriasis, lesions, blood poisoning, elephantiasis, caries, most sexually transmitted diseases, cancer, stomach disorders, diarrhoea and dysentry. It is used extensively in traditional ayurvedic medicine in India and there is research published in Eritrea to encourage its use.

One use that is discouraged but widespread is among prostitutes. Parts of the tree are mashed down and taken by women who have become pregnant. In this form and quantity, it is a powerful poison and encourages the abortion of the foetus. It is a fine judgement however, because too much can also kill the mother. Even the "right" amount carries a big risk and will make the woman very sick.

One of my friends tells me that abortion is illegal in Eritrea except where the life of the mother is threatened. Many women, not just prostitutes, risk their lives with a potion from the Neem tree.

Liberation Weekend
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Liberation Weekend. 21st to 24th May. The biggest party of the year.

I'm going to Asmara on Friday afternoon. Thursday night, Isak invites me round for coffee. I'm grateful because the compound is filling up with clucking women. They have all gathered to make injera and other food for the next day, when they will mourn the passing of Mama Gabriella's son. Gabriella is in America visiting other relatives at the moment (I love the thought of her wandering around the beaches and shopping malls of California -- her only English before she left was "Thankee") so it is down to her daughter Rosina to organise the commemoration of the day that he died in the border conflict in 2000. Clucking women, burning charcoal, boisterous children. It's too much to bear after a day at the school so I am happy to go for a little peace and quiet at Isak's. Isak comes to collect me. He's been to celebrate the first birthday of a friend's child (it is rare to celebrate birthdays beyond the first. Jo theorises that it's because the first year is the most dangerous that its completion is celebrated). I ask him is he has eaten, intending to cook for myself if he has -- but he says that he hasn't had any food since lunchtime. We sit chatting over coffee for a few hours. By the time it gets to about 9 o'clock I'm very hungry but it is then that Isak tells me that Barhed is too tired to cook tonight. He has eaten enough for the day. But I bloody well haven't! I don't mind that they don't feed me, I just wish I'd known earlier! I hasten home with a runble in my belly.

When I get to the house after weaving through the clucking women I put on some water and start boiling some pasta. Just when it's ready Rosina knocks on my door with some zigni and injera. So the pasta is redundant now. The zigni knocks my socks off with its heat and I go to bed with a sore stomach.

I wake up with a sore stomach and get ready for work. Rosina knocks again and offers more zigni for breakfast. I can't face all that spice so early in the morning so I lie that I've already eaten. So I leave for work hungry and with indigestion.

In the afternoon more zigni is plied upon me, as well as dlot. I really don't like dlot so I pick at tiny pieces until the others around the table finish the plate. At the same time I sip tiny drops of foul soupy sewa. I leave about 1 o'clock with more stomach-ache.

After giving up on the buses and trying for ages to hitch a lift, I finally get to Asmara about 6pm and meet Jo in Vittorio's coffee bar. The main street, Liberation Avenue, is closed to traffic and people are just starting to pluck up courage to walk on the tarmac. Every shop and business has an Eritrean flag mounted outside. Mosy of the windows have stencilled messages of congratulation. There's the expectant air of an approaching party.

We book into the Freedom pension, appropriately enough thenweave through the back streets to the Sun Pizzeria for a doughy but delicious slice.

Coming out back onto Liberation Avenue in the dark and the street is now full of people. Walking up the road we come across a stage. A male singer performs Tigrinya songs while a bog crowd watches. At the front of the crowd people are dancing in the shoulder-shrugging, foot-shuffling Tigrinya style. The stage is invaded from time to time by fans who stuff Nakfas down the singer's top. He manages to ignore them completely. Next up is another singer and his band, accompanied by a group of dancers. This music is much more lively and inventive, with a flavour of the music further south in the continent. I think it might be Kunama, but I'm not sure. They all wear white skirts and their bodies are much more mobile than the jerky Tigrinyans. This time members of the audience jump onto the stage to dance with the performers, dodging the bouncer who tries her best to manhandle them off again. It's the chaotic cebration of all the best concerts and Jo and I are having a great time. It's a little odd that, although the crowd are really enjoying themselves, there is no clapping between numbers. People clap along with songs but it is rare for people to clap in appreciation here. Clapping is usually used to get attention in cafes or bars so perhaps that is why.

Walking a little further through the crowd we come across VSOs Brendan, Adrienne and Danny so we head off to the City Park for a beer. New Asmara Stout. It's not much like any stout that I know and I suspect that it's just the normal lager with added colour and flavouring but I quite like the burnt caramel taste.

Adi Qala
--------

The next day we get on the bus to Adi Qala. This is a small town about 5 Km inside the Temporary Security Zone, so only about 20 Km from the Ethiopian border.

We book into the Gash Hotel, a couple of blocks off the main road. It's a nice place: the rooms line up on one side of a courtyard, most of which is taking up by a huge hole where construction is being carried out, but there is seating nearer the bar that is shaded by a promiscuous passion fruit vine, green new fruit in abundance with the occasional ripe yellow globe showing through the thick foliage. Passion fruit is not native to Eritrea but this is a welcome sight in a land usually restricted to the beles cactus (prickly pear) and guava trees. The staff are friendly too. "John" shows us our room then asks when we'll want a shower so he can turn the water on.

We walk down the main road and continue out of town for about 20 minutes, past a U.N. encampment; a deserted town of tents. We reach the edge of the escarpment. Here the land drops away sharply into a deep valley that opens out onto the plains and hills that form the border between the two quarreling countries. The road continues down into the valley, zigzagging dizzyingly until it reaches the floor then running parallel with the dry river bed. This road used to carry trade and traffic between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Now there is a solitary bus heading for the border villages. Mist shrouds the road about halfway into the distance and the mountains beyond are pale ghosts.

I heard a story about the river bed. An Eritrean decided to escape the country. He travelled to Adi Qala and then walked to the Italian Mausoleum. He knew that a river marked the boundary between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Looking out from the escarpment he could see a river and a village just beyond so he made his way down the slope very carefully. Once at the bottom he checked along the dry river bed for soldiers. When he was sure there were none he ran across the river bed and up the slope to the other side. He walked casually into the village he had seen. When he came across a villager he explained with glee how he had managed to escape from Eritrea and asked if he could be taken to the local official. The man grabbed him and called the police, who carted him away to prison. He'd got the wrong river: the river that marks the boundary is further off in the distance.

While we are enjoying the view a boy of about 17 joins us. Sami is his name. Sami speaks very good English for a boy of his grade and he is very careful to pronounce the words correctly. He's a pleasant guy and it's nice to while away the time chatting with him.

We drop our stuff at the Gash and head off to the Tourist Hotel for a beer and a couple of games of cards -- another leafy courtyard and a cheery atmosphere -- then we return to the Gash where John tells us he has saved some pasta. I'd asked earlier if they had any so he saved some for when we got back. A nice guy.

Next day we get up fairly early to walk the 6 Km or so to the Italian Mausoleum. Branching right from the main road we trudge along bare open farmland. This is probably the most boring landscape I've seen in this country: scrubby fields with occasional rocks and very rare trees over completely flat land. Ahead we can see a rise. When we get there we climb the path to enter a small village and beyond the village we can see the Mausoleum. One of the village kids wants us to give him some Nakfa to open the padlock on the gate but it's not the mausoleum that we're here to see. To the left of the mausoleumis the edge of the world. An almost sheer drop down onto the valley floor. Lokking across, we can see a wide open plain framed in the background by the high hills of Ethiopia. It's lovely and very impressive. A couple of shepherd men squat talking as they look out over the view.

The kid who asked for the money comes up to us with his friends, a big bunch. Jo shows them the binoculars we're using. The money kid is the biggest and the boss of thebunch so he gets first turn. He's rapt. He can't believe how thay bring things closer and stares and stares in fascination, turning the binoculars the wrong way round and laughing at the effect. Then he lets the other kids play. The binoculars get passed around the whole gang, girls last when they finally pluck up the courage to join in. They all handle the binoculars very carefully and ensure that everyone gets a turn. It's a real pleasure to watch.

Finally, we get up and, after meeting the boss kid's adult brother and giving him a go, we say goodbye to the children. Further down the track from the village some more kids join us. These are different. They are demanding and irritating and keep asking us for my water or Jo's biscuits. At first we talk to them but they start to get on our nerves so we carry on walking and ignore their shouts. Now they are getting very boisterous. One of the kids deliberately knocks the bottle out of my hand, twice. After telling them to stop we move on. But now they are starting to throw stones. It's common in this country to throw a stone to get someone's attention so I assume that is what they are doing. But then the stones start arriving higher and more frequently. The little buggers are throwing stones AT us! Twice we turn around and shout at them . They back off, but only far enough so that we can't catch them. We have to put up with hurtling stones until we reach a the curve in the path where people are loading up with water. They wouldn't dare throw stones with Eritrean adults around.

On the bus at a little past midday for a surprising simple return to Asmara.

Celebrations in Asmara
----------------------

Asmara is noisy. There are loudspeakers posted along the length of Liberation Avenue blaring out Dimtsi Hafash (the national radio station). We book back into the Freedom Pension then head out for some food. The plan is to have a little drink then eat at the Blue Nile restaurant, one of my favourite places in Asmara. As we reach Liberation Avenue, we can see that the streets are lined with crowds of people. The road is cordoned off and there's a parade passing by. Colourful floats pass us in a full-on carnival. There are ethnic dancers and musicians, whole football teams kicking balls around the road, peopl in wheelchairs that have been made up to look like road diggers, floats sponsored by Eritrean companies and the ubiquitous Coca Cola. From time to time a group marches by shooting fireworks from sticks they are carrying that must surely be illegal in Britain. With the lights strung across the lampposts glittering, the whole thing is a very enjoyable spectacle and we stop and start along the way to the Blue Nile as things catch our eyes.


Next day is Liberation Day itself. Modern Snack Bar for a breakfast of yoghurt and honey for Jo and Ricotta and honey for me. While we are in there and huge shadow passes across the street outside and an almighty boom announces the passing of a fighter jet very, very close to the ground. We learn later that the jet was dropping congratulatory leaflets over the city. (One did the same in Keren and nearly hit a telegraph wire). Wander round the city, take in a photo exhibition and take a few photos of our own then meet up with a few people at Bar Royale. Moving on from there, Jo and I are joined by Greg from Adi Teklezan and we sit in the sheltered verandah of "Joe's Bar" playing Scrabble and drinking the new beer. A man comes up to us in the bar and announces that he is drunk because Eritrea is free. We congratulate him and he moves on, smiling.

Change of Plan
--------------

Jo and I have talked. We've talked and talked and talked. Neither of us is enjoying their placement nor do we think that what we are doing is of much benefit to ourselves or the country. That is not to say that the program here is a waste of time, just that there are problems and I personally would feel that the only reason to stay would be to continue this lifestyle. I don't think it would be very ethical to stay just to prolong my holiday in Eritrea and Jo and I both want to get on with building our life together in England.

And so, briefly, we have decided to leave. We will be returning to England soon.

Now it is difficult. All the good things fade into the background, all the bad things come to the fore. I can't help dwelling on the irritating aspects of the country: the cat-calls from the kids, stone throwing, bureaucracy, the tendency for Eritreans to say anything to keep you happy or fob you off, even if it's an outright lie, the out-and-out fight to get onto a bus that has spaces for everyone, people barging in front of me while I'm asking for something in a shop, the smell of shit everywhere, the vicious treatment of animals, the abysmal service in cafes and restaurants. All of these things have always irritated me. Most of them I could ignore when I had in mind that I would be living here for two years. Now, however, I am thinking about life away from Eritrea and away from all that and I can't wait. All those things now loom over every day and I can't ignore them any more. So each day is a real chore now. The journey to the school is a gauntlet to be run, each new encounter with an Eritrean tenses me up as I prepare for the usual inane questions in poor English about the "condition" (nobody amongst us ex-pats has figured out if that means the weather, the environment, the people, the dispute with Ethiopia, or something else). It wears you down having to reply several times in slow, simple English to the same dull questions. (Alright, I should have learnt more Tigrigna.)

These things have always been there, and every country has its equivalent annoyances (in England, for example: rain, strangers not talking to you, consumerism, up-their-own-arse Londoners). It's just that I'll soon be leaving and I feel a little guilty about it and this is one way for my mind to justify the decision. It's the right decision for other reasons, not the irritations I've mentioned, but they help my head feel more comfortable.

Mariam Dearit
-------------

On the 29th May the festival of Mariam Dearit is held at the baobab tree shrine. The night bfore, Isak asks me if I want to help him slaughter a goat but I decline: I'm worried that I might not do it swiftly enough or correctly and cause the animal to suffer. Instead, I drink coffee then eat the blood and some dlot before going to bed. I get up early for a Saturday morning to walk down and take a look.

Keren is full of people. The cafes are frantic and there are minibuses everywhere to ferry people to the shrine. Larger buses pass through carrying pilgrims from other towns and villages. The air is thick with exhaust fumes and sweat.

I follow the crowd along the road leading to the shrine. When we get close to the gate, the crowd thickens, coagulating around stalls selling kitsch religious posters. These are beyond gaudy. Primary colours and a cartoon aesthetic combine to hilarious effect. All of them are terribly painted but some tip over into genius. As well as the icon stalls, there are others. Young boys collect bets against a spinning number wheel and attract the largest crowds while priests charge one Nacfa for a kiss of their hand and a blessing. They stand in the sun shaded by gilded umbrellas looking upright, regal and disdainful of the crowd pushing around them.

Inside the gate a guard checks all the Eritreans' bags but waves me through. I'm feeling facetious so I pointedly walk up to him and offer my bag for him to check. I could be a terrorist too you know.

The crowd opens out into the space and cool of the line of trees and grass that leads down to the shrine. People are sitting picnicking and chatting or milling about amiably. Isak, Barhed and Isak's mother, Oqba, are among them. Closer to the tree the crowd congeals again around the statue of the Madonna. The statue is entirely black. Not African in its features, in fact it is a typical representation in all its caucasian serenity in black resin or stone. Not for the first time I wonder that even here there is never a hint of Africa or the Middle East in Mary's features. She is a cultural import, just like Coca Cola only less popular. Hands from the crowd reach out to stroke the effigy.

Behind the statue and its crowd another, larger group is gathered at the entrance of the baobab. A man is standing on a platform passing around a mesherefet (a circular mat of woven grass, the smaller versions are used to fan the charcoal burner -- the fournello -- that heats the jebena). Onto this mat people from the crowd place money and boxes of candles.

Behind the tree is the partial construction of the new church. Only the chapel is completed while scaffolding and tarpauling extend the structure across the width of the area. Underneath this there are two devotions taking place. On the left, furthest from the chapel, coptic priests stand in a circle chanting. They pull intricate wooden crosses out of their pockets from time to time and kiss them. The chant moves around the circle, the next priest starting before the previous one has finished, overlapping and harmonising, while the faithful look on or stand listening with eyes closed. At regular intervals the chant stops and a muttered "amen" ripples through the congregation. At the other end, in the chapel there is a choir of teenage children. They are singing sweetly, accompanied by traditional instruments in front of neat rows of solemn devotees. Behind them the garish fetishes of the chapel scream for attention of their own under a rainbow of Christmas lights.

Outside there is more music under the shade of the tree. It comes from a man playing a wata. The wata is a diamond-shaped box attached to a wooden arm with a cross-piece at the end. A single string is stretched from the cross-piece to the base of the box and the musician is furiously scraping this with a bow as his fingers trip up and down the arm. He produces surprisingly complex music from such a simple instrument, a little like an Irish jig, and his efforts are rewarded by the nacfas that admirers plaster on his face. I can't bring myself to lick a nacfa so I stuff a note into his collar instead while he studiously avoids eye contact and continues to play.

The Madonna has disappeared and the crowd starts to flow, forming a double ring around the main space, along the line of the trees. A procession starts along the track formed by the trees and the crowd. Each Catholic church around Keren has sent representatives who chant, dance and bang drums as their group moves along the route. They are all uniformed in some way, most soberly dressed in plain colours. Many of them sing solemnly then suddenly burst into rapture as the drummer at their head jumps about beating a heavy rhythm. There are nuns too, and small children in traditional dress. The most colourful are the Nara girls; red and gold dresses set off by the complex colourful bead patterns in their hair. The priests come next in their white robes trimmed with gold, carrying ornate sigils of office such as incense burners and filigree staffs. In the middle of the priests, carried on a plush platform and shaded by several of the gilded parasols is the statue of the Virgin, looking compassionate but unimpressed by all the attention, perhaps even a little patronising (if that is a the correct word for such a career mother).

Following the priests are the local dignitaries, from the Mayor of Keren down. Ironically, most of these VIPs are muslim. In fact it is encouraging to see the three major religions of Eritrea joining up in this way.

Three times around the crowd they march and dance and chant. Few people move from the crowd in that time and it is impossible to leave the inner circle where I find myself. After the third time, the ring breaks up and we make our way home. Back to the town to meet Jo and Greg then on to Isak and Barhed's to eat the rest of the goat he slaughtered the night before.

Next day, Jo and I are round at Nigusse's house for a lunch invitation. (Nigusse is a teacher at the Secondary School who I am helping to learn to teach I.T.) He lays on an impressive spread; sewa, injera, chicken in silsi with hard-boiled eggs (a rare delicacy here, surpisingly considering that most compounds keep chickens, and absolutely delicious). By the time we leave, our stomachs are full and our hearts are happy after a fun, lively conversation with Nigusse, his brother and sister, and their mother.

The weekend has been a timely reminder of how effortlessly generous Eritrean people can be, and an antidote to the worm of resentment that was wriggling about in my gut.

A different type of worm is wriggling about in Jo's gut. She is suffering from diarrhoea and stays in Keren for the next few days, firstly because she feels unwell then because the bus service is overloaded by the crowds of people leaving Keren to return to their homes.

Stoned
------

It's not just the kids from the villages that throw stones. A barbecue at Brendan and Adrienne's in Asmara on Saturday night. Wine, sausages, beer, steaks, gin and kebede (a cordial made from soaking flower petals in water), Brendan and Adrienne's wedding music selection (they got married just before they started VSO two years back) and a vibrant mix of VSOs, Eritrean colleagues and friends, and other NGOs.

Later in the evening, the drinks have started to take over and the dancing has kicked in. Eritrean shoulder shrugging and Western awkward hip-jiggling. Until a big crash gets everyone's attention. Somebody picks up the object that had been thrown: a stone as big as a fist that hit the bars across the window of one of the rooms. It must have just missed several people, if it had hit someone it would have hurt them seriously. After peering over the wall next door and looking along the roof we can see no-one so we continue dancing.

Two more stones come over that evening. Despite looking next door and searching outside the compound we don't manage to find the culprits and finally the party fizzles out. The Eritreans amongst us apologise and try to explain that this isn't typical of their country. The rest of us know that and reassure them. In any case it is late and we have all had enough to drink and enough of a good time. Cowardly vandals haven't spoilt our fun.

But they have got me diving back into my own resentful thoughts.


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Friday, April 30, 2004

Five-nakfa Trees 

On the back of the five-nakfa note is a monochrome picture of an enormous tree. The trunk is relatively short and supports a huge, wide, deep canopy of leaves. In its gnarled body and full , rounded symmetry it resembles an oak, stretched laterally. It is unlike any of the usual trees in this country; the scraggly baobabs that look as if they are waving their roots in the air and the cactus-like candelabra trees predominate.

Just on the outskirts of Segeneiti is where the five-nakfa tree can be found. In fact, as well as the original on which the pictire is based, there are several others, placed evenly-apart in a field of grass. The last one before the town clasps onto the rocky slope at the side of the road, the wind and weather and sheer effort of clinging to its precarious position have carved a lifetime into the knots and whorls of the trunk, like the pinched pulled and beaten face of an old man.

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Trip to Qohaito 

The Easter weekend. This year the orthodox Easter coincides with the Western tradition, so Good Friday is on 9th April for everyone in Eritrea. (The disadvantage is that there is only one holiday.) So no school on Friday. There should be school on Monday but very few students or teachers are likely to turn up because they'll all be dotted around the country visiting family.

(Teachers are lucky if they are posted close to their family village or town. Many of those in Keren come from villages in Zoba Maekel, the region around Asmara, or even right at the other end of the country. They generally don't get a choice where they are placed until they have been teaching for a long time. As the years go by, teachers tend to get placed closer and closer to the ultimate prize: Asmara, having started when newly-qualified in a tiny village up a mountain somewhere very remote. I'm hoping to buck the trend by moving from a major town to just such a tiny village. Many people consider me insane.)

We too -- Jo and I -- are on the move. We've succeeded in getting permits to visit the architectural ruins on the plain of Qohaito.This is quite a feat: I had to ask my director (head of the school) who wrote me a letter to take to the local Zoba (regional) office of the Ministry of Education. They gave me another letter to take to the central MoE office in Asmara, who told me to come back in a week. When I returned the next week, I took the completed letter over to the National Museum to get the permit to visit the ruins. But the secretary wasn't there, so I was told to come back at 9.30 the next day when she would definitely be there. She wasn't, and wouldn't be back until the afternoon. I needed to get back to Keren, so I couldn't come back that day. Instead, I found myself in Asmara the following Monday so I went in once more. The secretary was there but ... the director wasn't, and it is he who signs the permit. Eventually, I gave up and handed my letter over to Jo who, because she was in Asmara all week for work, managed to finally get the permits from the museum.

Eritrea is focussing on tourism as a major future source of income.

So we're in Asmara, having spent a tranquil night in Shimangus Lalai. We're in bustling Asmara, scouting around the bus station for the bus to Adi Keih -- the nearest town to Qohaito. "Yelen", as they say in Tigrinia (say it in a Welsh accent and you've pretty much got it): there is none. Moreover, there is a big queue of people waiting for the bus if it does turn up. Queueing is rare in this country so when you see a queue it usually means there is a serious problem. After a bit of discussion we decide to try to hitch.

We end up walking about 10 km out of town before we come to a suitable spot to hitch from. A truck stops for us and the driver offers to take us to Decamhare, about 40 km into the 120 km trip to Adi Keih. We accept, even though he asks us for 15 Nakfa each. We are grateful to be on our way out of Asmara.

When we get to Adi Keih we stop for a quick beer in the first bar we see. It's not a friendly place. The waitress is reluctant to get out of her seat to ask us what we would like and the people at the tables stare at me and Jo for the whole time we are there. It's livened up by a madman / drunkard who gyrates madly around in front of the bar, singing to himself. There are no buses at the station here either, so we try to hitch once more. This time we strike really lucky: a UNDP (UN Development Project) four-by-four that zips through to Adi Keih, stopping for five minutes at Segeneiti for business. (Segeneiti is where the five-nakfa trees reside.) We get there well before dark, which we certainly didn't expect, and for free this time.

So we end up at the Sami Hotel. A bit of a grand name: it's a pension really. Comfortable enough, and the people are friendly, but there is just one outside wash basin which has no plumbing (the water runs straight onto the floor) and a view of the backs of men pissing into the squat toilet. There is a toilet with a door but none of the men bother to close it if they go there. The Sami Hotel was the third place we tried. We looked up the first and second choice in the Bradt guide. First choice was the Adi Keih Hotel, which was closed down, second choice was the Qohaito Hotel, which looked like it had been burnt out: window frames resting against the wall, jagged singed edges where they had been set into the stone.

Next day we head round to Nick and Sarah's house to meet Brendan and Adrienne, and their friend who will guide us. They turn up late -- but no matter -- and Brendan is not with them. He's gone off with another friend to drive up the road to the site. We're walking. So off we go.

Down to the other end of town then straight on. We cross farmland and a small river then start to make our way up the steep side of the valley. Trudging up the hillside is very hard work, and the sun beats down in its midday intensity. But it is fun. There is a camaraderie amongst us as we pass over the pink stone. Scattered amogst the pink are stones of many colours, some striped, others mottled, an amazing diversity of minerals blinking in the sunlight. Embedded in the pink are large rocks. They lurch out of the clay, polished with a liquid silver sheen. We move on to the next stage: a far steeper climb to the top.

At the top sits the village of Safira. It is peopled by Sahoe, about whom I know almost nothing. There is a mosque, no church that I can see. We meet with the official guide and sit for a coca and some bread in the tea shack cum shop. Then we move off with the guide's boy assistant onto the Qohaito plain to see the archaeological ruins.

Inside a wire-mesh fence stand the remains of ... well ... something or other. They are the remnants of a pre-Axumite civilisation (Axum was the ancient empire that straddled Eritrea and Ethiopia); four standing columns of stone and six more lying broken across the rubble. The boy guide picks up a fragment of pottery to show us then drops it nonchalently where he stands. He then takes us over to a patch of grass beside the standing columns and invites us to jump up and down. There is a hollow under the grass that booms softly as we jump. The boy cannot tell us what it was used for. In fact, while standing among such ancient structures is thought-provoking, nobody knows anything much about them so the boy has little to tell us.

Across the plain are other ruins, said to be part of the same settlement which must have covered the whole of the plain. Beyond the plain is the giddying escarpment that drops down to the Red Sea. Unfortunately, the clouds are low this afternoon and all we can see is a curtain of white.

After the disappointment of the ruins we move down to another small village across the plain. From there, we meet up with the adult guide and he takes us to see the cave paintings. The plain falls away sharply into a gorge. The gorge has a prehistoric air about it. It is extremely steep and deep, gouged out of the earth and carpeted with trees and vegetation. I wouldn't be surprised to see a pteradactyl swooping down in the valley below. I stand on a ledge and look down into a primeval world.

We tread carefully along the narrow path that leads us down the side of the hill; a sheer face to our left and a sheer drop to our right. After a short time, we come to the paintings. A large mass of rock overhangs a clearing. On the rock face are painted herds of cattle, deer and camel. Men with spears corral them in their groups. The paintings are primitive, stone-age. Earth colours of red, brown and black depict sketchy, formulaic representations. The sense of wonder at seeing such incredibly old artefacts still intact and recognisable is complemented by their stunning location. This was truly worth coming for, unlike the pillars.

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The Bed 

Jo wants a new bed. For guests. She turns up unexpectedly one Friday evening in Keren and catches Isak, his brother Kesete and I downing beers at Bar Elen.

The plan is this: we scout the town the next day to buy a bed and a mattress then bus back to Shimangus Lalai with them both. The logic is that it is actually easier to get a bed onto the bus from Keren than from Asmara because the latter is no more than a minibus.

So we buy the bed and mattress and head on our way, after negotiating a price for carriage. Along the way, it starts to rain and the driver very helpfully stops to take the mattress off the top and into the bus to keep it dry.

By the time we get to Serejeka, there is a serious storm threatening. Thunder and lightening crash in the north-east and the storm is approaching fast.

Jo and I take hold of the bed, mattress on top, and start the mile or so up to Shimangus Lalai. We are both laughing hysterically: we are carrying a large metal frame along and open track while an electrical storm speeds our way and fork lightening crashes a few hundred yards away. This is the kind of thing you read about. This is the kind of thing that merits a Darwin award for death by stupidity.

Needless to say we made it safely.

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Searching for Utopia 

Searching for Utopia
--------------------

I hope to change my placement next year. This year has been a failure in many ways, and I have become sceptical about the worth of teaching computing in Eritrea. I'm eager to move away from the secondary school in Keren to a fresh start and no more computers. I hope to find a small village to live the simple life and teach English in. So I spent a couple of weeks visiting prospective places around Anseba (the region that Keren lies in) and Maekel (the region around Asmara).

Mealdi
------

This is a small Tigre village in Anseba, about two hours' walk from the big village of Adi Tekelezan (itself straddling the Asmara - Keren road, about 40Km from Asmara). It is the only Tigre village in the area, being surrounded by Tigrinya settlements. There is a bit of bad feeling because the village has been located by the government in a valley that was previously farmed by the neighbouring villages. Now many people feel that their land has been taken from them.

The plan is that I make a visit to the junior school in Adi Tekelezan to get directions to Mealdi. The teachers are friendly, and I'm invited for a coca and fata before setting off in the direction they show me.

(Fata: bread broken up into yoghurt and silsi -- the spicy chili, tomato and onion sauce that forms the staple diet here.)

It's impossible to get more than halfway to Mealdi by vehicle, so I don't even try. I set off on foot.

The sun is beating down, although it's cooler here than in Keren. The road, and then the path that shortcuts across it, take me down into a bowl of a valley, ringed with terracing and smeared with the coarse tan of tilled earth. There are trees lining the river itself, which trickles steadily -- an unusual sight in such an arid country. I cross a small procession of stepping stones bridging the water and climb up the other side of the bowl. As I climb, the brown gives way to pink dust and clay. More terracing here, and I find myself on a rosy cone of a hill, ringed with olive trees. They crouch like old men bent against the prevailing winds, only revealing their fruit as I get up close. The olives look healthy but unripe, the fruit still forming: little cups that will eventually seal over.

Walking around the hill, following the line of the olive trees, I spot my landmark: a ridge smeared in white. I head for the ridge but, in the process, lose the path. Trying to keep the ridge in my sights, I climb up the terracing, following the thin tracks made by shepherds and their charges. I'm hoping that, when I get to the top of the ridge, I'll look down and see Mealdi nestling in a valley. On the way up I spot a hare bounding close to me, and a huge fat locust. The locust is not what I'd expected. I'd expected an ugly creature, reflecting the scorn it attracts through the corruption of its features. Locusts are universally reviled, I expected their physical appearance to be a factor. But this one is beautiful. As big as a robin, with crimson wings, in fact at first I mistake it for a bird. But the green and red stripes ringing a plump, fleshy abdomen reveal an insect, albeit a startling one. While I watch it lazily buzz across the thin grass and rock, I'm awed by its boldess and horrified by the thought of one bumping into me. When they swarm, these things must bruise like hell.

The path was the wrong one. There is a valley, a very beautiful valley. But there is no Mealdi. It's the wrong ridge.

I've been trekking for about two hours now. I walk along what seems to be a small track, searching for another likely ridge, but I can't see any. Eventually I give up, but now I've lost the path back to Adi Tekelezan. I can see the town in the distance, but I have no idea how to get to it. There is a river in the way, and I can't see where the bridge crosses it.

I try several tracks but none of them leads where I want to go, and all of them eventually fade into dead ends. Eventually I decide to break the primary rule of travel in Eritrea: leave the path and head atright down into the valley, cutting straight through the lines of terracing. This is potential mine country but I reason that if its farmed then the mines must have gone by now. I hope I'm right.

I make it down to the side of the river, and find a well-used path. Along the path are a couple of village girls, leading a flock of sheep. There is also a pack of dogs guarding the livestock. As I approach, the dogs perceive a threat. The whole pack runs at me, snarling and barking viciously. At moments like this, with adrenaline pumping into my system, I am surprised at how clearly I analyse the situation. The dogs are aggressive because they are doing their job. They think I'm a threat to the sheep they are protecting. I need to demonstrate that I'm no threat. So I turn ninety degrees and start to walk up the slope, away from the path and the procession of sheep. The dogs stop on the path. They mill about, watching me warily as I skirt around along the slope. When I judge that I'm far enough away from the flock, I descend back down to the path. By now, the dogs are just glancing over at me occasionally, to make sure I don't try to return.

By now, I can see the path to the bridge and my way back to Adi Tekelezan. After about four hours of trekking, I return to the town, having completely failed to visit Mealdi but convinced that I wouldn't want to live there anyway: it's a beautiful part of the country but the village is too remote.

Tseazega
--------

A few kilometres from Asmara, along a tarmac road, is the village of Tseada Kristyan. It is a large village with lots of square new-style buidilngs and very littel character. A few kilometres beyond that is the village of Tseazega. Tseazega is a long, dull trek along a road deep in fine dust. The landscape is dull, flat and dotted with army tents. Only when very near the village does greenery appear around a small stream and lake. I meet some students on the way, and they lead me across a small stretch of farmland, up the leftmost of two hills to the village.

The village is large. It sprawls over the hill, a mix of new-style square blocks and traditional hidmos. There are no compounds, each house is open to the tracks that run between, except for occasional lines of stones marking a boundary of territory. The residents look at me bemusedly, the kids shout the usual "Tilian". I'm pleased to see that they get told off by the adults though, who all greet me warmly and with respect. This is the big contrast between village and town life: people are more friendly and open in villages.

The school is fairly new. The rooms are in good shape and the teachers seem happy. The school is junior and elementary, fairly large for its type. There is a library but it has never been used since it was built, even though it is full of books. Sadly, in this country, it is common for well-meaning philanthropists or NGOs to build libraries that never get used because of the lack of a librarian. People are happy to accept a new building but reluctant to pay a small wage or give a lower teaching load to one of the teachers to manage it. So this library, like many others in Eritrea, remains locked.

The teachers are a nice bunch, and the director and vice-director are hospitable and seem keen to have me there. Tseazega is definitely a potential place for next year. The only drawback is that the village is in the dullest landscape I've come across in Eritrea. In a country full of amazing mountains, valleys and views over plains, this area is flat, dusty and empty.

Hadish Adi: From Eden to Oz
---------------------------

"Hadish Adi" means "New Village / Town" in English. It's not new any more. It is a very small village about and hour and a half walk West of Elabored, which is 45 minutes by bus from Keren, towards Asmara. The village sits halfway up a hillside. It used to lie in the valley below but moved up out of reach of the malarial mosquitos that plague the valley, hence "Hadish Adi".

I get the bus to Eden, the large village that abuts the huge Elabored farm estate. From there, I walk alongside the purple and orange bushes that mark the boundary of the estate until I am almost at their end, then I turn right onto a dusty track. This area is greener than possibly any other part of Zoba Anseba. Irrigation encourages trees and bush as well as the crops, and birds flit about the sky. I spot what seems to be a kingfisher: squat body with an oversized head and dagger of a beak. (Later, having spotted another while out walking with Jo and looking it up I realize it's a little bee-eater.) Starlings and canaries gather in troupes; shimmering two-tone and pastel boldness mingling.

After passing under a rail bridge, relic of the defunct system that once took people from Massawa through Asmara to Keren, the trail splits and I take a left fork to follow a small river bed into drier land. Then, crossing a small stream of flowing water, the path curves to the left and rises as it follows the contour of a large hill. On top of the hill is an arrangement of stones. I can't tell if they were put there by hand or by nature; they are piled wide at the base then diminishing in a parabolic curve to a single large stone balancing at the top. It looks like a gust of wind could prove fatal to anyone walking underneath.

Around the other side of the hill, I can see Hadish Adi in the distance. It looks like Oz, hovering indistinctly in my middle vision. It seems to be close. I walk towards it, down into a steep valley and across a wide, dry river bed, then up the other side. When I get to the top, I realise that the village is further away than I'd thought: I have to cross another valley before I've reached the right hill. It really is like Oz. Finally, exhausted, I make it.

I'm grateful for the offer of jebena from the director, the only staff member at the school because it is lunchtime and the teachers all escape to Eden. I half expect to find him sitting behind a huge megaphone like the wizard himself, but he's actually an ordinary, likeable guy who's enthusiastic about his work and the school. Another small school, another remote village of hidmos. It's lovely but, again, too far to trek. By the time I make it back to Keren, hitching a lift from Elabored, I'm completely exhausted.

Azien
-----

This one's to the East of the Asmara road. This time, I go by bus. The bus leaves from Asmara itself and turns off just before Embaderho to bounce and jolt along a rough track. It takes us past a lake and some kind of processing plant -- industrial country.

Azien is right on the ridge of the Eastern escarpment. Behind the village is a dramatic drop down to the Northern Red Sea plains. The location is fantastic. However ...

I reach the village to find out that only a handful of teachers are there because the previous day was the local "nigdet" (saint's day) and so no students and hardly any teachers have bothered to turn up. So, after a quick look around the deserted school grounds, the vice-director takes me up the track for a drink. When we get there, he ignores my protestations and ends up buying me three beers. Eritrean hospitality. While we down the beers, I ask him about the village.

"Do the teachers ever visit the village?"
"Not often, they stay in the school grounds mostly."
"Can I visit the village?"
"I wouldn't. There are police there at the moment. With guns. We heard shooting earlier."

Apparently, a bunch of people got pissed up on sewa the day before and started a fight with people from a neighbouring village.

"Does this happen often?"
"About once a month. There is strong rivalry between several of the local villages and the young men often cause arguments in an attempt to prove themselves."

That's Azien crossed off the list then.

I get the bus back after a lengthy wait. One of the teachers helps me cram into an intensely crowded bus. As I get pushed in, one of the men on the bus kicks at a kid, forcing him off the bus to make room for me. My mind works slowly at times like this. I'm fretting about what to do when the door shuts and the bus starts to move off. From my cramped viewpoint between a press of bodies, I can see the poor kid looking dolefully at the departing bus. I wish I had had the presence of mind to react more quickly.

Gule'e
------

About 16Km along the Massawa road from Asmara there is a large cafe, commanding an amazing view over the mountains and onto the Northern Red Sea plains. Starting to the left of the cafe and curling around and down into the valley way below is a sandy, gravelly path. It curves around the side of a hill then snakes down to the valley floor. There, the path manders towards another large hill at the base of which sits the tiny village of Gule'e.

Gule'e is another Tigre settlement. Perhaps a couple of hundred paople inhabit rough stone shacks within open compounds that are marked out by lines of stones set in the earth. Small bunches of kids stare silently from their own compounds as I pass, then follow and flow together with more kids like droplets down a window pane until I am being watched by a pool made up of most of the kids in the village. They are still completely silent, even when I offer a "kemey?". The adults are curious and polite, offering nods and mumbles in return for my greetings. No smiles, but smiles for strangers are a rarity in this country.

Down a track from the village is the local junior and elementary school. It hosts about 500 students across both schools, and maybe a dozen teachers. Half of the teachers are there when I arrive, and thy're a friendly bunch. The director is there and he offers me first injera, but I've eaten so I decline, then chai. We sit around and chat: him, me and a bunch of the others teachers. One -- Mohammed -- is especially chatty and friendly and his English is good so we get on very well.

After chai, the director takes me around the school. It is in fairly good condition and there are some new buildings being constructed: more classrooms because they will be teaching an extra grade next year. Then we move up to the village and, after meeting the local village administrator (a government official who doesn't seem to know what to do when he meets me, so decides he should write my name in a book -- until he is stopped by the director who says it's not necessary), we sit in a small shop with a coca and a cigarette.

I'm getting good vibes about this village. The landscape is breathtaking: clouds rolling over the plains just visible beyond impressive mountains, trees playing host to a symphony of birds. The school and the teachers seem pleasant (in particular, the school is small), and the locals seem friendly, if a bit wary. I leave Gule'e promising to come back and visit even if I don't wirk there next year, and thinking that I have probably made my choice.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2004

More for the Menagerie 

"'Take me in, gentle woman', sssighed the sssnake"
--------------------------------------------------

Morning. About 6.30. Wake up, get up; bleary-eyed and wobbly-legged, staggering to the corner to put on my sandals. As I reach down something odd registers in my blurred mind. The shadows of the corner seem deeper than usual. As my mind and eyes begin to focus, I realise that the shadows are also moving. Curled up in the corner of my bedroom is a two-foot long green-black snake.

Now, I know very little about snakes. Is it poisonous? I have no idea. But I don't want to kill it. So I reach for my broom and try to shoo it under the door with the brush. The snake's not cooperating: it curls around the brush and back into the corner each time I try to push it elsewhere. It doesn't make any attempt to strike however, so I assume it's fairly benign. I want to pick it up, but I'm unsure if it might try to bite me if I do.

Mama Gabriella notices me and comes over to investigate. Rough translation from the Tigrinya: "Eeeeeeeeeeeeee! A snake!". At her screams, Hafti Gabriella rushes over with her husband's big stick and "smack!": down comes the stick and out spill the snake's brains. The poor thing's head is completely split in two. I pick up the corpse when it finally stops twitching and carry it across the yard to drop it outside. Both Gabriellas back away from me as I pass by, gasping incredulously. I've met many people in this country with a morbid fear of snakes, and even the thought of touching the body is too much for the Gabriellas.

A little later, when I go round for my breakfast bread, the woman in the shop gives me something wrapped in a sweet paper. It looks like a small white piece of plant root. "Keep this in your pocket and you will never get bitten, or keep it in your house and no snake will come near", she counsels. It doesn't taste or smell of anything to me, but then I'm not a snake.

"There's a rat in mi toilet, what am I gonna do?"
-------------------------------------------------

4 o'clock in the morning. The beers of the previous night have worked their way through and need to be released. On with the clothes, pick up the torch, and across the yard to the toilet. But the toilet's already occupied. A heavy scrabbling makes me look up to see a big rat hanging by its front feet from the beam in the ceiling. Its trying to get out of the light but can't get down from its perch, so it runs frantically back and forth along the beam, nearly slipping off several times, and urinating onto the floor below at least once. After watching it for a few minutes, I reach a decision: I don't want a rat to fall on me or piss on me, so I go to the corner of the yard to relieve myself instead.

When it's time to get up, I'm glad to find the rat gone but both Gabriellas seem a little moody. Maybe they disapprove of my decision.

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FGM Links 

Here are some links for information on Female Genital Mutilation. I have not fully reviewed their content.

Amnesty International: www.amnesty.org/ailib/intcam/femgen/fgm1.htm

World Health Organisation: www.who.int/inf-fs/en/fact241.html

Stop FGM: www.stopfgm.org/stopfgm/jump_page.jsp

UNICEF: www.unicef.org/protection/index_genitalmutilation.html

US State Department report on FGM in Eritrea: www.state.gov/g/wi/rls/rep/crfgm/10097.htm

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