March 26, 2007
Anchored in Port Massawa, Eritrea
15º36.76 N, 39º 27.74E
Forty-eight Hours in Massawa
By Lois Joy
Go to photogallery
Pacific Bliss drones on through a becalmed Red Sea, finally reaching the port city of Massawa in this small country of five million souls called Eritrea. We know that we are arriving too late to check in, and that Sunday is the official day off, for this is a Christian nation set among Muslim countries. A few cruisers elect to wait out the week-end at a nearby anchorage, arriving on Monday. But we are content to fly our yellow quarantine flag, relax and stay on board per regulations, secure in the knowledge that we are already in port.
Hooray! On the Net this Saturday morning, we hear that the customs office will open in the afternoon to clear the arriving yachts. "Port Control, Port Control, permission to proceed to the anchorage," I call on VHF Channel 16 as we approach the harbor.
"Tie up to the Quay, next to the white luxury ship," comes the answer. "We will open at 1600." Chris and I rush to get the fenders out of the sail locker to tie up along the tire-protected blocks. It is 1400. Two hours to wait in the blazing sun. But this means that we can spend the week-end seeing Massawa. We wait. The harbor master's office never does re-open. Chris and Gunter walk around the port area and manage to rouse Immigration, sleeping behind closed doors. Great! We have shore passes good for 48 hours!
After crewing in the hot sun (and neglecting to don a hat) and weakened by the Aden flu that has attacked 1/4 to 1/3 of the fleet, I elect to stay on board after all. Gunter, dead tired after our passage, stays with me. Chris becomes our delegate to check out the night life. This is the first port since Galle, Sri Lanka where the girls are uncovered. They have the African dark skin, petite frames, with pretty faces and high cheekbones. Their hair is fashioned in an amazing array of braided styles. The Eritreans brew their own beer here, which is actually quite good, but not as easy to obtain as we'd been told. However, Chris manages through Mike, the yachties' helper here, to track some down.
The situation in Eritrea is grim, Chris reports. The local friends he made on Saturday night were not positive about the government, even though Eritreans are proud of their hard-won independence. The government has become quite autocratic and wants to remain in control at all cost. As in Yemen, officials are not doing enough to bolster the economy of the country. When a person does obtain an education, he (or she) is not assured that he can work in the occupation for which he has been trained. The government "assigns" the jobs and seems not to care whether the person wants to do that particular job or is trained for it. They seem afraid to "grow" educated, powerful people. The "assigned" military service is from three months to three years, compulsory for both men and women, and very tough. Although the people seem friendly enough, there were many signs that they have little hope of an improving future.
The poverty is apparent here wherever one goes. A step down from Yemen. Which was a big step down from Salalah, Oman, our first Middle Eastern port. How much worse can it get? I am not looking forward to Sudan.
Everywhere one sees the debilitating effects of decades of war. As we dinghy from the anchorage to the quay, we pass the bombed-out remains of one of Halie Selassie's old mansions overlooking the harbor. After going through the port control gate, we pass more bombed-out buildings. One of them has a unique architecture reminiscent of some sort of splendor gone by. "That was a commercial bank building," we are told. "The Ethiopians bombed it as a good-by gesture, after the peace treaty was signed." There is no love lost between the Ethiopians and Eritreans (see previous story: The Countries of the Red Sea). We see white vans with the U.N. insignia. Many peace corp officers are stationed here. I am eager to do an internet search to find out more. Are any western countries aiding this struggling poor country? They should be.
Chris, Gunter and I meet at 7:30 AM with a group of yachties at Mike's teahouse, where he has arranged for a van to take us to church. We have no idea of what kind of a church we were being taken to; it turns out to be Orthodox Catholic. We remove our shoes at the entrance, packed with families, and sit on the array of rugs spread out in the center of the church. A group of elders march to the front wearing white crown-style caps and white prayer robes, carrying ornate silver crucifixes. One framed print of Jesus--along with three framed prints of Mary and Baby Jesus--take up the wall space at the front. There is an altar surrounded by plastic flowers. The sides of the church are lined with stain glass windows--for looks, none of them open. The women in the church are wearing white gauze scarves over their heads and shoulders. I am wearing a light aqua headscarf; the other yachties with me have hats or caps. As we listen to a language we cannot understand, women bring us plastic chairs to sit in. Either we were too late for the music, or there wasn't any. There are eight fans hanging from the ceiling, but they are not moving. No electricity? Who knows. It is stifling hot. A lady notices my white face and sweating brow, and brings me a little pink plastic fan to wave. That saves me. At the end of the one hour service, my two friends and I talk with two nicely dressed ladies. One invites us to tea, that is, until they find out that we are a group of eight. "Too many for my house," she backs out delicately. We move toward the entrance, where groups of families--mostly women and children--pack the church yard and steps. Now we understand why they sit outside during the service, to catch a breath of air.
The van is not going back, but to the market. It is only 9:30 AM, and I'm not sure I can make it. I deplete my water bottle to prevent yet another dehydration headache, hoping to buy more. The stalls are the poorest I've seen in all of our circumnavigation. We do purchase a bunch of bananas, and I find a cooler mesh headscarf. The supermarket in Massawa mentioned in the Red Sea Pilot has long been closed. One cannot even find a can of coke or other soft drink here, now that's poverty! I wait in the van, parked in the shade, for the others. Since the flu, I cannot take the blistering sun.
Back at Mike's, we sit and socialize, go for a beer next door to quench our thirst, (it's either beer or water here), then walk to The Beaches for a nice Sunday lunch. A video of the BeeGees is playing on the TV set. I have red snapper, nicely spiced, and Gunter has a so-so hamburger that arrives without the fries he ordered. Meals are expensive, considering the economy, about $5 per person. But beer is cheap, about 12 nafka, 80 cents (vs.$4 in Aden). I order every juice on the menu, in succession, with the waitress coming back each time, "We do not have…" until I hit on the one they can actually make (fresh orange juice). A taxi van picks us up walking part-way back to the quay, saving me from heat-stroke. We have to walk along the entire commercial street to the guard-house, then back the same way we came, inside, on the hot tarmac lining the quay. Ports are always like this, dirty, unfriendly to cruising needs and making one feel third-class. Oh, for those Mediterranean marinas where one walks off the gang-plank to the restaurant. I can't wait!
We plan out a side trip to Asmara, the supposedly charming capital in the mountains with Italian architecture, pizza restaurants, and cool dry air. We send Chris back to Mike's in the evening to negotiate a taxi and driver for us while we pack and rest. When he returns, the price is exorbitant-hundreds of dollars that we would rather spend in Egypt. We know we are being taken. The pricing doesn't make sense when the bus ride is only $2.00. But the bus ride is four hours long with no personal stops vs. two hours long in a taxi, where we can stop if we want to. Besides, we would need to obtain a VISA and a travel permit on Monday. We decide to skip Asmara, and to check out within the 48-hour limit, since we were unable get the $40 per person VISA when we checked in. Sudan, here we come!
At night, I wake up every hour, sweating, sheets soaked with perspiration, and NO, it's not that; I am too old for menopause! I splash water on my naked bod and lie down again in front of the fan. It is deadly calm, hot, and humid all night. This anchorage is a hell-hole, and I just want to get out.
Monday: The phrase we borrowed from MiGitana, "Nothing is ever easy," is multiplied in spades in Eritrea. Even though we technically have until 3:00 PM, we rush to check out before the offices close at 12:00. (Nothing is open here from 12 till 4 PM; the searing heat we experience only gets worse as the summer comes on.) First, we need to pick up the laundry we dropped off upon arrival. Mike goes back to his home to fetch it while we wait at his tea house, having breakfast. He comes back with one of our bags and one belonging to Legend II; Kathy and Verna have just left on the bus to Asmara. But wait! It gets worse. Their laundry is mixed up with ours in one of the bags, piece by piece. A pile of washcloths, mixed. A pile of towels, mixed. A pile of underclothes… well you get the point. We sort them all out on the tables at the back of the restaurant, while Mike brings the final bag. Chris and I go to the internet, but just as we sit down at a terminal, all the servers go down. We return to Mike's. We're concerned about the time drifting past, even on Eritrea time, 1200 was coming close, and we hadn't checked out. Mike has managed to buy a supply of beer for Chris, bottles, which we stow in our hefty "provisioning" bag. I stay to guard the beer, while Chris and Gunter go by dinghy to bring Pacific Bliss to the dock. Then we lug the laundry and the beer back past the guard house, along the quay, and heft it all onto Bliss. Next, we check in and out, so that our passports are stamped correctly. "Are you sure you don't want VISAs?" they keep asking.
"No, that's past. We want to leave, NOW," says Gunter.
We leave the office. We never did check in with the Harbor Master, who wanted us there at 1600 Saturday. By 1230, we are "outta Dodge and " blowing this popstand," new terms for Chris from the American Midwest.