Tuesday, 30 April 2013

I am not a wasp: More spam emails and my responses

Lacie Felicie – My closest chick and me arrange a kinky barbecue


I have been hard at work, racking my brains in a vain attempt to come up with a less sexually-charged environment than a suburban English barbecue.

Maybe it's because I lack imagination, or maybe it's because I associate this particular alfresco dining experience with overweight, beer-drinking, middle-aged men, crowded around hot coals, cooking meat that has usually been purchased cheaply and in large quantities, and is often slathered in some disgusting, exoticly-named sauce that hides a multitude of sins.

The sizzling meat juices that you probably have in mind are of an entirely a different origin, and are probably 'home-made'.

I don't know what you can do to make such an unpromising set of circumstances “kinky”. Seriously, you would generate more of an erotic charge rubbing a balloon against an item of frumpy knitwear, marketed at 60 year old spinsters.

Dressing up as a 'sexy nun' is only going to heighten the Sunday School picnic vibe. Getting naked and basting yourself in onion relish will attract wasps faster than I can piece together the mental imagery necessary for me to feign arousement, although it occurs to me that maybe this is what you wanted all along. Tell me Lacie, do you ache for the dry caress of a striped, yellow and black exoskeleton against your naked, onion-smeared body?

If so, then I must exclude myself from future kinky barbecues, for I am not a wasp, and am unwilling to undergo the four-hour surgical procedure to become one.

Amira Trev - Wanna share my impressions with you about naughty 18th birthday of my best roommate


These activities that you coyly refer to as “naughty”; I am assuming that they are sexual in nature. I'm thinking naked pillow fights and entry level lesbianism!

Of course I am well aware that you are not inviting me to stand around gawping at naked college girls, young enough to be my daughter. This is serious business. You have asked me to hear your impressions on these sexy bedroom antics, and I assume that you will want me to consider them from a detached aesthetic perspective. You want me to remark on how Eunice's shapely buttocks bring to mind the tragic derrière of Béatrice Dalle in the French art-house film, Betty Blue. You want me to roll my eyes at Meredith and Ethel's passé attempts at stirring controversy with some half-hearted girl-on-girl snogging.

You want me to quote Simone de beauvoir and equate post-modernism with the female orgasm and the deconstruction of the Freudian paradigm.

I am up for this. Shall we say 8 o'clock on Friday?

Toi – Attractive pussycats that want to date and bang


I will be blunt with you.

I am not going to fuck your cats. Not if I have to take them out on dates to the cinema and Pizza Express first.


Hello NEVER CockBlocked,

Like one of the dragons from Dragons Den, I am now going to aggressively point out to you the fundamental flaws in your otherwise admirable lifetime sex pass scheme.

Legal sexual intercourse requires the consent of two or more parties, with a general agreement on what is off limits, and also on practical matters, such as whether the safety word you have chosen can be easily heard through a ball gag. Take it from someone who used to go dogging on a fairly regular basis: There is a general etiquette that you must follow. It is considered extremely rude to wade in and start thrusting away without asking first.

Even if you were to limit your sexual activities to fellow Sex Pass holders, it is still unlikely that every member of your organisation is going to want to shag every other member. Consent cannot be implied. It must be obtained and it must be conditional. Prior to any sex act there would still have to be a discussion, during which, one or both parties, might voice a reluctance to take things any further.

Therefore, while it is possible that your Sex Pass may increase the opportunities for intercourse, unless said pass takes the form of a gun or a really sharp knife, it doesn't follow that it would grant its users access to sex whenever they wanted it.

I think that you need to re-word your emails to make them a bit clearer. I am considering referring you to the Advertising Standards Agency.

Dara Usher - Totally saucy photos from a smashing hen party at my cousin's

Dear Dara, of House Usher

Do you have a plum in your mouth? And no, I don't mean a testicle.

What I mean is, all this talk of your cousin's “smashing hen party” makes you sound posh, like you come from old money.

These saucy photos that you speak of: Do they, by any chance, feature a gaggle of horsey-looking, young women, who dress ten years older than their age, drinking rose wine, while slapping one another on the behind and affecting mock expressions of surprise?

I am assuming that these pictures are intended as some kind of sexual come-on. If so, then you should be probably be made aware that I was sired from simple, upper-middle-class peasant stock, and am hard-wired with the pedestrian sexual mores associated with my dreary background. I would advise you to seek sexual fulfilment in the time-honoured tradition of the blue-blooded aristoracy - in the strong arms of the gardener, the laconic but ruggedly handsome stable boy, or the elderly gentlemen who visits on Tuesdays and rakes your gravel drive.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Unsolicited emails that are currently cluttering my Spam Folder, along with my responses to said emails

(1) A message from Velva Dzie enquiring: “Are you done with tiresome meetings instead of awesome sex?”

Dear Velva,

The implication of your email is that I am being cruelly forced, against my will, to attend tiresome meetings at the expense of having awesome sex.

In fact I can think of literally thousands of occasions when the best-case alternative to a tiresome meeting would have involved sitting around watching re-runs of Top Gear on the Dave Channel, while eating slices of bread directly out of the packet.

Tiresome meetings are, by their very nature, tiresome, however I do not believe that my direct exposure to awesome sex would increase in any statistically significant manner were I to stop going, although my career prospects would undoubtedly suffer as a result.

All the same Velva, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your concern, and will keep your hypothesis under consideration, pending peer review and publication in an appropriate academic journal.

(2) An Email allegedly from Jennifer Aniston: “Hi!”

Dear Ms Aniston,

I have just consulted your relationship status on wikipedia and note that you are currently engaged to a man called Justin.

While I am universally regarded as one of the world's most attractive and virile men under the age of 40, who is borderline autistic, unemployed and still lives with his parents, I think that your current romantic attachment to this Justin fellow should hold in check any further flirting by email.

Also please to do not stand outside my bedroom window, holding an 80s boom box above your head and playing a mix tape of your favourite songs in a misguided attempt to make me fall in love with you.

My favourite music is written and performed by horrible arseholes and is therefore an unsuitable soundtrack for any kind of burgeoning romance.

I will keep your email on file for a period of six months. If, during that time, you should become single, I will be more than happy to resume our online correspondence.

(3) Numerous offers to “Permanently add 2-4 inches to your manhood”

Current penis-enlargement technology seems to have stalled at around the four inch mark. I think that this would probably be enough for all but the most poorly-endowed or insecure men, however part of me still wants to see scientists break the 5 inch barrier.

(4) Leana Vanaerden wishes to inform me of a “Perturbing house repair executed by horny Eve.”

Oh, Horny Eve. If you could keep your mind off sex for just a few hours, then maybe your home repairs wouldn't be quite so baffling.

(5) Simona Lashawn offers a “bare skin photoset in the countryside with my enormous dog.”

Dear Simona,

Your name reminds me of a character in an unfinished Victorian novel that I began writing when I was 18! I have stopped short of clicking on your link because:

(a) I think that it might install a virus that resets my homepage to the Daily Mail Website. Calling in a professional to remove this malicious software would be terribly embarrassing.

(b) I am pretty certain that 'enormous dog' is a euphemism for something and I don't particularly want to find out what that might be.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

“We couldn't have picked a worse place to have a fist fight”

Eritrea: Asmara/Massawa

Mike's tendency towards conspiracy theories - his unfounded belief that there were people who were out to get him - was, I surmise, shaped by a traumatic event that occurred when he was a young boy. At the time Eritrea was occupied by Ethiopia. The indigenous population were in the midst of fighting what would turn out to be a 30 year guerilla war for independence.

Mike lived on Massawa Island in a cafe that was owned by his parents. One day some soldiers entered the premises and took his father away. Nobody ever saw him again.

A lot of Eritreans disappeared in this manner. While it is highly probable that the victims of these abductions were executed, in many cases the circumstances surrounding their deaths remains a mystery.

When I first met Mike, he was living with his mother in a small apartment above the cafe. The business had passed into the hands of a new owner. Maybe out of kindness, the proprietor had allowed the old woman to remain on the property. Their living quarters consisted of a small room and an enclosed balcony. The latter was partitioned by hanging blankets and served as a bedroom, kitchen and living area. The pair bickered constantly in Tigrinya, which is the native language of Eritrea.

The extreme daytime temperatures and oppressive coastal humidity of Massawa Island make it a difficult place to do anything other than slump languidly in a chair, with a drink of some description, and engage in laconic conservation. Mike was amiable company and I enjoyed spending time with him. We were quite similar in many ways: A pair of rudderless men who had never found our true place in the world. Like me he had never married and had few friends.

I learned about his past in a piecemeal fashion over the course of our many rambling discussions:

After his father's disappearance his mother had worked as a maid for the family of an American diplomat. When the time came for them to return to the U.S. they had offered to adopt Mike. His mother had refused their offer and this had become a festering source of resentment.

He once told me that he had fathered a son with a woman who he had met in the army, but that the child had fallen ill and had died a few weeks after it was born.

He had back problems, which I came to believe were psychosomatic, as the symptoms were vague and seemed to come and go. He was constantly badgering me to obtain western medicinal drugs on his behalf from my doctor. I tried to explain to him that, in England, doctors prescribe medication according to the needs of the patient in front of them.

“It's not like the pharmacists you have here. I can't go to my doctor and say 'oh by the way, my friend's got a bad back. Can you give him something for it?'”

“But you can pretend it's for you.”

“No I can't. The medicine is paid for partly by the state. The doctor has to make a diagnosis and then he has a duty to treat the problem and keep a record of what he's given to a patient... Look, it's not going to happen, so let's just let it go.”

“Ask anyway,” he replied dogmatically.

We went round and round on this point, with Mike utterly intransigent in his belief that I could acquire medication for him from my GP and then send it to him via airmail. I had noticed in the past that, once he had an idea fixed in his head, it was very difficult to dispel it, or change his mind.

He would often tell anecdotes whose common theme was the misfortunes suffered by people he knew who had left Eritrea to pursue opportunities elsewhere in the world. The living subjects of these cautionary parables would invariably pay the price for their wanderlust with madness and penury.

One afternoon we were sitting on plastic chairs outside one of the cafes. Mike was drinking coffee. I had a glass bottle of Fanta that I was diluting with water to make it last longer. He pointed out a shabbily dressed figure who was shuffling along by the old railway line, on the opposite side of the road, near to where the mini-bus taxis pick up passengers for Gurgussum.

“Do you know him?”

“He went to work in Germany as an electrician.”

“What happened? I take it that things didn't go too well.”

“He went mad. Now he has nothing. Do you know the song by Phil Collins: Think twice, it's another day for you in paradise?”

“Uh huh.”

“He didn't think twice.”


It had been over a decade since Eritrea had regained its independence from Ethiopia. The unfettered optimism that followed in the wake of this improbable triumph was now on the wane.

The government had ruled effectively during the long occupation, promoting the merits of education, sexual equality and religious tolerance, in pursuit of the greater good of national autonomy. In peacetime they had been unable to break out of the isolationist mindset which had been forced upon them during the war, when there was little international support for their cause. The momentum and goodwill that had been bought by their victory had been squandered as the economy began to founder and then stagnate, and the previously upbeat mood of population began to regress towards despondency and disillusionment.

In the space of a decade Eritrea had alienated neighbouring countries and driven out vital investment. The only visible foreign business presence in the country belonged to those corporations who were more interested in brand presence and market domination than they were in short-term profit. Coca Cola was ubiquitous and had an enviable distribution network, with the apparent ability to penetrate anywhere humans might have scraped out an existence, regardless of how remote it might be. As I was gearing up to leave the country, the first mobile phone licences were being granted to civilians. Foreigners had been given access to the network roughly six months in advance. When I had arrived on what was to be my last visit to the country, the customs officer who checked my bags expressed incredulity that I didn't have a mobile.

More ominous than Eritrea's precarious economic situation were the flashes of paranoia being exhibited by those in power. The incumbent administration saw dissidents lurking in every shadow. There were rumours of extremist groups operating in the north and this part of the country was barred to tourists. Down south, in the more habitable regions, arrests were being made and it was hard to tell whether these were a response to a genuine threat, or the early indicators of a government losing its grip and lashing out, seemingly at random. Christian groups unaffiliated with the powerful Catholic and Orthodox churches were a prominent target. Some individuals who I spoke to in private muttered darkly of secret prisons in the desert.

This climate of suspicion sent Mike's own paranoia into overdrive. In the cafe bars of Massawa he would often point out men on adjacent tables who he identified as government informers. I found it hard to know how seriously to take these claims.

The situation was made worse by Sharif – a half Tanzanian/half Yemeni man, with nebulous business interests, who had employed Mike in some capacity. Sharif would get drunk early in the day and then speak in conspirational whispers across the table of “dangerous men in England.” All of this was overheard by Mike and it probably played some part in what was to happen later.

“Sharif, there is absolutely no point in you telling me this...” I would reply, completely exasperated.

“...What am I supposed to do with this information? You tell me a place in the world where there aren't dangerous men.”

Sharif always had plenty of money and was generous with it to the point of recklessness. Where this stream of disposable income originated was beyond my understanding. He had started a company in Eritrea but I never saw any evidence of him doing anything that resembled work. There was mention of a cargo boat sailing from Saudi Arabia, although it was never made clear what was on it, where it was going, or how Sharif would profit from the voyage.

Whenever we were together in Asmara we would eat out, in what were, for Eritrea, some pretty decent high-end restaurants. Usually our party would consist of myself, Sharif, Mike and another man called Tekel. Sharif would always pick up the tab. In the beginning I made attempts to pay for my share however this proved problematic. Sharif who would act as if I had gravely insulted him and would become quite physical in making me put my money away. After a while I gave up offering.

One evening, in one of the more trendy bars, Sharif paid for a round of four drinks with a large denomination bill. The waiter took the money but never returned with any change. Sharif was too drunk to realise what had happened. I spoke to a few of the staff about it and was eventually assured that somebody would “bring the change soon.” They never did.

It was a few hours earlier on that same day that Sharif had recounted an incident that had occurred on the western coast of Yemen, in which he claimed to have shot a man in the leg in a dispute over a stolen fishing boat.

I felt like I had been drawn into a world where everyone I knew (including myself) was either crazy, drunk, or paranoid, or some combination of the three. In an attempt to gain perspective and perhaps have a normal conversation I went to see Sharif's business partner, Sami, at the hotel where he was staying. This turned out to be the same hotel that I had stayed in on my first night in the country, having fetched up at the reception desk in the small hours of the morning.

Sami was a model of Islamic sobriety. He lived modestly and attended prayers at the mosque. He never came out on the town with us, although he would sometimes join us for tea during the day. He spent long periods of time in his hotel room and had started to furnish it to his liking. We sat on the floor and drank tea together.

“The other night Sharif told me that he shot a man in the leg.”


“So this actually happened... Because Sharif is a lovely man but drinks a lot and I don't know whether I should take his stories seriously.”

“It happened.”

“Were you there when it happened?”

“No.. This man. He attacked Sharif with a knife.”


A few days before I was due to travel back to the UK, I returned to Massawa for the last time. As a parting gesture of thanks, I took Mike out to dinner.

“Tomorrow I'm getting on the bus back to Asmara...” I told him.

“...Then, on Thursday, I'm flying home to England and I'm never coming back here again because this whole country has gone completely fucking mad. So this is goodbye, because after tonight, we're not going to see each other again.”

The following day I was surprised to find Mike waiting for me at the bus station. He told me that he would be travelling to Asmara too.

“Great,” I said.

When we arrived in town, he went off to his sister's house. I checked in at the Salem Hotel, which is next door to the British Embassy.

When I met Mike again, later that afternoon, he told me that Sharif had gone back to Tanzania for a couple of weeks.

We had a drink in a cafe. Afterwards he seemed reluctant to part company and we ended up wandering aimlessly around the capital, which is an extremely small city, and in any other more populated country would be regarded as a town. Eventually we reached an area that was relatively deserted and sat down on a bench.

“I think there is something you want to tell me,” he said.

“Only what I said to you in Massawa. Thank you for your help and for your company over these past months. And you know... Take care of yourself and your mother...”

“Maybe there is something else that you want to say to me in private.”

“If there's something on your mind then you're going to have to tell me, because I don't know what it is that you want me to say.”

“Maybe when you go back to England I can help you with information.”

In that moment the penny dropped and I suddenly understood the reasoning behind a lot of Mike's recent odd behaviour.

“I see what you're driving at. I know we talk a lot about this country and the politics. That's only because I'm interested in what's happening here. That's all there is to it. There's nothing else going on.”

Mike seemed put out by my response.

“Maybe you don't trust me.”

“I do trust you. I think that you've got an idea about me that isn't real. If I've said or done anything to make you think that, then I'm sorry.”

“We can talk about this another time. Maybe you have to speak to someone first.”

No. Look I don't have to speak to anyone. We're not going to talk about this any more. Okay”

The following day I met Mike again, this time at an outdoor cafe, in what was described as a park, although there was more concrete and paving than there was foliage. Here we shared a conversation that was almost identical to the one we had the previous day. By now my amusement at Mike's misinterpretation of the facts was wearing off, and I was beginning to get a bit concerned.

“Look Mike. You need to stop talking like this because if the wrong people hear what you're saying you could get us both into serious trouble. We could both go to prison and it would be for nothing.”

Undeterred he went on to explore the possibilities of his proposed information-sharing relationship, as if attempting to gain purchase on an opportunity that didn't exist.

I pleaded with him: “You've got to stop talking like this. Please just stop it. Why can't we just have a normal conversation?”

The next day – the day before I was due to fly home - I got a phone call in my hotel room. It was Mike. He said that he wanted to meet up with me and talk.

“I don't think that's a good idea. I've got a lot to do before I go. When I get back to England I'll write to you.”

I put the phone down. It rang again a minute later but I didn't answer. It continued to ring throughout the afternoon. In the evening when I came down for dinner Mike was waiting for me in the lobby.

“I can't talk to you,” I said, as I brushed past him.

He followed me out in the street.

“You're acting like a crazy man,” I said. “Your behaviour is going to get us both locked up.”

“THIS IS BULLSHIT!” he shouted as I walked away.

As I headed towards Harnet Avenue I was vaguely aware that Mike was behind me, dogging my footsteps. He finally caught up with me alongside a large compound that had formerly been the Presidential Palace, although it was no longer used for that purpose. I was on the side of the street across the road from the curtain wall that surrounded the extensive grounds.

“I can't have a normal conversation with you. Just leave me alone.”

“I want to talk to you.”

"We have talked and you won't listen to what I'm saying. You're going to get us into trouble. Just go...”

We stood facing each other, then I said something that broke the stalemate:

“...You know Mike, if you're not careful you're going to end up like your father.”

A split second later I was staggering backwards. I could taste blood in my mouth.

We exchanged a flurry of punches. I don't think either one of us was holding anything back.

The building to our left was evidently some kind of guard house or garrison because suddenly soldiers began pouring out of the doorway and onto the street. As the seriousness of our situation became apparent we both backed away from each other.

“What is going on here? Why are you fighting?” asked one of the men.

“It's finished...” I said. “...I'm going to go this way and he's going to go that way.”

As I turned and walked away I half expected to be arrested.


When I came downstairs the following morning, Mike was waiting for me. He looked suitably remorseful. I hope that I did too. I apologised to him for my part in what had happened.

We made our way over to the cafe in the park where we had met the previous day. As we sat down, a pair of children approached us and apparently asked Mike if he wanted anything from the kiosk down the road. He gave them some money for cigarettes and the pair ran off to get them.

Our usually free-form conversation was stymied by a new-found awkwardness, as we attempted to work out how best to repair our damaged friendship.

“We couldn't have picked a worse place to have fist fight,” I said, ruefully attempting to break the ice.

“Those soldiers.”

“I thought we were going to end up in jail.”

The conversation quickly petered out. I rummaged around in my head for a neutral topic that would fill the silence; one that was unconnected with the madness of the past few months.

“You know it's been ten minutes. I don't think those children are coming back with your cigarettes.”

Mike turned around and scanned the near-empty park, as if he was confirming their absence.

“It's comforting to know that it's not just the tourists who get ripped off.”

We ate lunch at a Muslim restaurant near the big Mosque. Mike knew the owner and introduced him to me. After our meal we shook hands on the pavement outside.

“I'll stay in touch,” I said.

A couple of weeks after I returned to England I received a postcard from Mike. A few months later he sent a letter. I never replied to any of his correspondence.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Government Whale


Asmara, Eritrea

“I'm going to head down South in a few days,” I said to Mike.

We had convened, at the request of our friend (a half-Tanzanian/half-Yemeni businessman named Sharif) at a place on Harnet Avenue that I had christened 'bar nonce” on account of the some rather dubious posters of children decorating the walls. One featured a young, semi-naked boy pulling the front of his shorts away from his waist, while a similarly-aged girl peered down into the void with her mouth agape.

It was ten in the morning. Mike and I were drinking small glasses of sweet black coffee. Sharif was flush with cash and was making steady progress through a bottle of Asmara gin.


“I want to visit the tomb at Qohaito. If they're allowing tourists into the buffer zone then I'd like to see the Aksum settlement at Senafe.”

“Mark, you should come back to Massawa with us,” said Sharif.

Eritrea is strewn with ruins that date back to the ancient Kingdom of Aksum, which rose to prominence around 100 AD and faded into antiquity just before the end of the first millennium. Over the centuries the physical remnants of this empire gone quietly to seed were disassembled and used as field boundaries in arid terraced plots. In some places you will see the odd stump of a stone column protruding from a vegetable crop. Other sites are better preserved and a cursory effort has been made to protect them

“You will need a permit to travel.”

“I'll get that. I need to see if they'll grant me an archaeology permit first.”

The following afternoon I walked to the National Museums Office, which turned out to be a large, two storey building. When I entered I found the ground floor unoccupied. There was no indication as to where I should go. I wandered around the place, tentatively peering into empty rooms, unsure whether I should even be there. In one corridor, populated by taxidermied examples of African wildlife I encountered the skeleton of a whale, laid out on the tiled floor. A small gang of cleaning ladies were poking their mops under the ribcage.

I eventually found the office I was looking for on one of the upper floors. The woman who arranged my permit asked me for my email address “so that I can make conversation with you.” I never heard from her.

On my way out of the building I paused to take some photographs of the whale. By now the cleaning ladies had gone and the ground floor of the building appeared to be deserted.

As I snapped away with my camera, the silence was suddenly broken by a booming voice from behind me:


I turned around and saw an Eritrean man in his late 50s, with wild frizzy, grey hair, standing halfway up the staircase.

“I was just taking some photographs of your whale.”


I tried to calm him down but he was absolutely incensed and my apologies only served to fuel his rage.

“WAIT HERE,” he said angrily, disappearing back up the stairs.

I decided that, under the circumstances, I would not to wait and slipped out of the museum before he could return.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

City port at the end of the world

The journey from the Eritrean capital Asmara, to the southern port of Assab took 36 hours. Inside the bus, every available foot of free space seemed to have been occupied by either a person, or by luggage or cargo of some description. When we stopped at the bus station in Massawa, several more passengers managed to shoehorn themselves into the cramped space. They stood in awkward lopsided poses in the aisles. I wrongly assumed that they couldn't possibly be planning to travel all the way to Assab standing upright, and were only going to be on the bus for a short period of time.

Most of the journey was on an unpaved coastal road through volcanic desert. The uneven surface violently shook the bus and its contents. Resting your head against any part of the vehicle made the vibrations ten-times worse. Every couple of hours we would come to a halt at a remote checkpoint. Some soldiers would indicate that they wanted me to get off and would spend the next ten minutes examining my papers.

At one of these stops I spied a number of large black and white birds away in the middle distance.


About an hour after it got dark, the road collapsed under the front of the bus. I wasn't surprised. The ground felt unstable. There had been a couple near misses beforehand and a more serious incident seemed to be on the cards. We all disembarked. I was the only passenger with a torch. I shone the beam onto the back wheels which were raised about five feet in the air. Some of the men began laying branches cut from desert scrub under the front wheels of the bus in a futile attempt to provide some traction out of the hole that we had plunged into.

An hour later a passing Toyota pick-up stopped and tried to pull us out. When the attempt failed some of women and children got into the back and were taken to a nearby village. The rest of us prepared for a night in the desert.

One of my fellow passengers spoke English well:

“Are there camel spiders?” I asked him.

He laughed at me.

“Scorpions; snakes maybe.”

I lay down on the ground and pulled my T-shirt up over my mouth in the hope that I could avoid inhaling any of the silty grey sand in my sleep.

The following morning another bus took us to a remote settlement about half an hour's drive away. I was amazed by the uniform flatness of the landscape which stretched for miles into a barren horizon. At a shop I was able to purchase some breakfast - a packet of novelty biscuits depicting stick figures engaged in various different sports.

We finally reached Assab early that afternoon: An international port with cranes, massive docks for container vessels, and absolutely no shipping traffic whatsoever. Although on Eritrean soil its remoteness from other indigenous settlements had resulted in it being designated for use by neighbouring Ethiopia. Tensions between the two nations had flared up and access to foreign shipping traffic was currently blocked.

As a consequence, the local economy had gone bust. None of the restaurants were serving food. I survived on cornflakes, bananas, and Dairy Lea triangles purchased from a shop whose raison d'être was to resupply independent travellers, making the off-road journey between Ethiopia and Djibouti. I was able to obtain bread rolls from a hole in the wall bakery across from the hotel where I was staying.

Every morning I would venture down to the shipping office and ask whether the cargo boat to Massawa – the only vessel sailing from the port – was ready to leave. I struck up a good friendship with one of the elderly clerks there. We went out for coffee a couple of times before his son - a soldier - warned him off talking to me.

I wiled away the rest of my time drinking with the business girls and with the soldiers from the nearby garrison. Occasionally I went for walks. It was so hot – in the low to mid 40s. I would leave the hotel with a pair of litre bottles of water. When one was empty I knew that it was time to turn around and head back.

It was a week before the boat finally set sail. Camped on the deck I eked-out a circular box of Dairy Lea cheese, eating one segment every three hours. My view of the sea intermittently broken by one of the other passengers, silhouetted in the brilliant glare of the sun, vomiting canned meat of dubious origin over the guard rail.