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'ĂȘtre 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.

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