Massawa, Eritrea, Africa
March 8 - 11, 2008
Busy War Torn Port Town
Battle Scars and Fishing Boats
March 8, 2008
Port Smythe to Massawa was an easy motor. Although the winds were predicted to be southerly they came from the NE, luckily quite light and therefore not effecting our progress. We entered through a narrow channel, first passing by a large port area for large ships, then past the local fishing fleet. There was not a soul to be seen, ashore or on the water. The entire area felt desolate and deserted. Most the buildings we could see were either run down or bombed out.
Eritrea and Ethiopia had been at war off and on for many years (starting as far back as 1961), the latest activity having just ended with a tense peace agreement in 2000. Sadly, Massawa was left barely standing when in 1990 the Ethiopians almost leveled the city with bomb raids after losing the port to the Eritrean People’s Liberation Forces. This was our first look at the destruction a war on one’s homeland causes, and it was devastating.
As we had arrived a bit late in the afternoon we decided to wait till the following morning before venturing ashore. That evening was a most amazing sunset. The sun glowed silver as hit the dusty horizon and the reflections on the water of both the sun and other yachts was magnificent.
March 9, 2008
Since Indonesia we have become more and more accustomed to hearing the early morning prayer of the Muslims. This morning Chris (as I was still sleeping in bed) was treated to a mix of cultures and religions as he heard Catholic church bells ringing, African music playing with harmonized voices singing along, and of course the song-like prayer emitted from the mosque loud speakers. All while the red morning sun rose above the dusty African town. He thought it was extremely cool.
The first order of business, of course, was checking in. It was easier for just the boys from the four yachts to go into customs and immigration. Since it was Sunday customs was closed, but we were able to at least get our shore passes.
As with the previous day, the town felt deserted – we saw hardly a single person walking the streets, and since it was Sunday no shops were open. Back in the early 1930s Massawa was the busiest port on the East African coast, but you would never guess that now. Beneath the rubble and ruins a discernible Italian influence exits. In the second half of the 19th century, Italy invested heavily in the colonization of Eritrea, and it shows in the remaining architecture. But not a single building dating from that period stands without some type of battle scar.
Amazingly, for a town barely standing due to years of war, and for a country known as one of the poorest in the world, the people of Massawa are extremely friendly and no one hassled or attempted to hustle us.
Walking along the dusty streets and alleys was an experience. Although the town is destroyed it still exudes tremendous ambience. It is unique with buildings made of coral rock with wooden screened windows. Down many of the alleyways we could hear festive music or see people gathered for Sunday lunch, chattering away and laughing loudly. Massawa is primarily Muslim, however instead drab black burkas the women wear colorful dresses with brightly patterned scarves.
We were mostly approached by children … always the most outgoing. You know that your in a poor area when kids ask for pencils and pens rather than candy and clothes. A couple of older boys (around 12) walked with us a for a bit, and eventually got up the courage to ask some questions. Surprisingly the thing they were most interested in was our political views on the upcoming US presidential election. Who did we prefer? Who did we think would win? And so on. They even offered their opinions on who they liked and why. And of course they had to give us the usual “we don’t like Bush” comment that we now expected whenever we said we were from America. It wasn’t until recently that I really began to understand what it means to be from one of the world leading countries. In my prior life I was never one interested in politics or policy. I never really thought what I or America did (in most matters) had that much of an influence on the world as a whole. But here I was in a country that most people don’t probably even know exists and these 12 year old boys could tell me more about the upcoming election than probably most American college students! So much for my theory on being inconspicuous!
March 10, 2008
It was a mixture of tasks for us today. In the morning Chris went back ashore to try and clear-in with customs, but nothing was accomplished as the official didn’t like that we weren’t using an agent (which cost money) and so told him (and the others) to come back later. We weren’t too concerned as he hadn’t taken any of our paperwork, so worst case was that we’d just leave, still having our clearance papers from Aden. During his jaunt ashore he passed out pencils to the mobs of children … once word gets out the rumor spreads like wildfire and soon you are surrounded!
A large part of our day was spent with various chores around the boat, Chris fixed our VHF antenna and added more fuel to the tanks while I cleaned up the boat and worked on our website and photograph organization.
Later in the afternoon I joined the other women for a trip to the market just outside of town. It is hard to blend in when (a) you are white and (b) you are with three other white women and one white man. From the moment we stepped out of the taxi all eyes were on us. The local markets are always a fantastic place. It is there that you get a true feel for the people, watching them shop and mingle amongst themselves. Many time Chris and I go to the markets just for exploring and don’t end up even buying anything. You never know what to expect and they are so different from any place back home. This market was small, but still interesting … men hand weaving beds, donkey carts bringing in supplies, women selling colorful fabrics and vegetables. (Photo above/left by Stardust)
The one thing about the Arab countries that you’ll read over and over again in all the guide books (besides covering every inch of your body if you’re a women) is that most of the locals do not like having their photograph taken, and that you should always ask before taking the photo, especially if it is of a women. Because of this Chris and I tend to be extremely consciousness and hesitant about pulling the camera out. I can’t stand the thought of further embellishing the stereotype of rude white tourists ignorant of their surroundings. It’s too bad really because these same countries have some great photograph opportunities. It seems amongst our cruising friends that we are the most sensitive and conservative in this regard. Just about everyone we know just clicks away, sometimes asking, sometimes not. Although I’ve seen some harsh looks here and there none of the locals have gotten overly cranky from this, so who knows maybe they don’t care as much as the guide books say. Anyway I only point this out because it might be noticed that in our PDF photo albums many of the photos are not taken by us, and some might wonder why.
After the market our taxi driver (now our hired guide) took us to another small shopping area that consisted of four small shopping stalls. There was nothing much of interest, although we did try and buy bread rolls until we discovered that there were only four left (as this is the only bread we’d seen in Massawa we figured we ought to leave it for the locals).
March 11, 2008
In Massawa you get a 48-hour visa for free, after that it is $40 per person. Originally we had planned on staying longer and taking the inland trip up to the capital, Asmara. The city is supposed to be equivalent to a 1960’s southern Italian town, and was not as touched by the bombings of the war. And the bus ride travels through some scenic mountain areas. In the end we opted not to go. Unfortunately two yachts who had visited Massawa just a week before us were both boarded at night, one was robbed (the other woke up and scared away the would-be thief). Because of this we didn’t feel comfortable leaving the boat overnight without someone watching it. And since we weren’t going to Asmara it didn’t seem worth the extra visa money just to stay in Massawa. So, our 48 hours were up and we were once again off.
In order to check out we had to re-anchor Billabong in the main port area and pick up immigration to come aboard to check for stowaways. I found this a little ironic as it seems to me that most countries are worried about people illegally entering their country not leaving it. It’s not a big deal though, and they were pretty quick about – the only real hassle is that we couldn’t depart early because we had to wait for them to open and then do all the paperwork and boat checks the morning of our departure. This limited our options for our next destination. But the one thing we’ve learned cruising is to go with the flow and adjust to make it work!
Leaving Massawa I couldn’t help but think about how lucky I am to never have been through a war on my homeland. It is good to see (and know from various readings) that Massawa is finally starting to rebuild and more and more business is starting to come back into the port.