Saturday, March 2, 2013

Horn of Africa Feb 2013

The portents were stormy, starting with the flight to  Eritrea.  The day before I was to leave San Francisco, the flight to JFK-Cairo-Asmara was canceled - storms on the East Coast.  So it was SFO-Chicago-Paris-Cairo-Asmara.  Long tiring flights. 

And throughout the trip, it seemed bits and pieces didn’t fall into place as hoped/expected.  The tour was set to include Eritrea, Djibouti, Somaliland and Ethiopia (Harare, the ancient walled Moslem city I had missed on previous trips into Ethiopia).  Yemen had been knocked out at the start, remaining only as a means to transfer from Eritrea and Djibouti.  Sharing borders does not mean you can get from A to B without diverting to C.  Excepting Somaliland, there is a history of conflict between the three neighbors.  Somaliland just deals with Somalia.

Five days in Eritrea, both in the two main cities, Asmara and Massawa, plus the countryside, Keren and Adi Keyh.   Several days in, I had developed the Mother of all Colds and spent one day sleeping in the back of the bus, missing  the rock paintings.  However, I was alert enough to appreciate time spent at a local wedding. and enjoy the barren Afar region but didn’t make the climb up to a mountain church.   Rather, I had to deal with several hooligans- they come in all nationalities.   Did manage the British War Cemetery, assorted  stele and an old underground tunnel to Ethiopia.

Eritrea has been described as the North Korea of Africa.  I did find the people friendly and activities were not curtailed..  There was no trash, there or in Djibouti  - it was pointed out that baskets were used rather than plastic bags for toting purpose. (There was trash in Harare!) Not a lot of traffic and what there was, was a mix of the old - donkey carts - and the new - autos.   I found similarities with Ethiopians though the Eritreans would dispute that, after years spent establishing their own identity.  But it is a poor country, with little industry - mainly subsistence farming.  It lost its seagoing trade to Djibouti - the docks at Massawa  are ghostly remembrances of days of yore.

The local guide wa a sweet man but not very effective when it came to herding the ten of us, plus the tour company’s director, a charming   Egyptian, who accompanied us for the first leg of the tour.  The group,  all Americans, were  widely traveled.  Ages ranged from    mid fifties into the eighties.  As with other American groups I’ve traveled with, they were compulsive picture takers - life seemed to be  a series of photo opportunities.

Interestingly, one of the big tourist  sights are the trashed tanks and other armament  from their last war.  Per our guide, they are used for spare parts in repairing current equipment.  Reminded me of  Kabul where they  have a museum of  land mines and graveyard of crashed airplanes.  

One of the experiences I most enjoyed was simply walking about Asmara and Massawa, feeling a part of the landscape.  I ran into four members of a British tour group, on a similar itinerary but  less upscale.

Then there was the flight on Yemeni Airlines  to Sanaa so we could visit Djibouti. And that was something that went really well.  Boarding passes were issued to Sanaa but not the connecting flight- I had visions of a third-world snafu at the Sanaa Airport.  I was wrong!  As we arrived, a Yemeni Air representative met us with our Djibouti boarding passes and escorted us to the waiting area.  I should also mention, that even on short,  hour long  flights, food is served, albeit only a sandwich and juice.  Which is more than I can say for the US airlines which passes out  juice, if you’re lucky,  on the cross country flight.

Djibouti City was noisy, crowded, busy in contrast to the slower pace of life in Eritrea.   The US has a base  and trains Special Forces (SEALS?) there.  Until recently, it was home to the French Foreign Legion. The Port is active, bringing in goods for Ethiopia, trying to be the Dubai of  the region -i t  has a long ways to go.

For a small bit of geography, there was enough for  three days of exploration, eg,Lake Abbe and Lake Assal plus the Rift Valley area.  Again, we were in Afar country.  But before all this, things were a-changin’

After Djibouti, we were to fly to Somaliland and see rock  paintings at Laas Geel, sure!

First, in a Chinese restaurant, we casually met  a Navy rating, a twenty year vet from Oregon,  working in Intelligence who advised - no, pleaded with - us not to go.  Four of our group heeded his comments and backed off.  Next, the flight into Somaliland was canceled - an alternate plan was suggested:  fly in on the next flight, drive around and fly out that evening to Addis.  While that made the country-counters happy, it didn’t show me much.  If I’m going to endanger myself, I want to it to be worthwhile.  So I backed off.  Finally, the director, now in the US, wisely  called Somaliland off and extra excursions were arranged for Ethiopia. 

(Several days later, in Hargeisa there was activity involving a number of the “bad” guys; two German tourist were stuck in the hotel with nine security people!)

Concurrently,  the local Djibouti tour person took off with the hotel payment.  The Ethiopian guide, a capable and delightful guy, now in charge, was stuck dealing with the Djibouti crew and their none too reliable 4x4s.  He managed and the three days in the countryside went off well.

Now to Addis and two days  Improv, which turned out very well.  So far as I could  determine, we were at Negash;  drove down to view a volcanic lake, rowing over to an Island church with its colorful paintings.  Then spent time at a memorial honoring a recently deceased warrior  - marvelous horses and horsemanship.  We were welcomed warmly by all.  Then a day at Tya World Heritage site, Maryan rock-hewn church and Melka Kunture Prehistoric site enroute back to Addis and a flight to  Dire Dawa and then, Harare.

Harare is the old walled Moslem city, once breached by a disguised Richard Burton in the 19th Century, the place I’d missed on two prior trips to Ethiopia.  A friend had been in the Peace Corps there some  years ago; I unsuccessfully tried to locate a woman. he’d known.  Harare is my kind of town: crowded, tacky, loud,  atmospheric .  We did the tourist bit:  Rimbaud House, the Handicraft Museum, the Catholic Church,  Adare Houses and the Hyena feeding.   Unfortunately, there was little time to just wander and absorb the ambiance.  At the minimum I needed another day.

Next back to Dire Dawa, stopping at the Khat market enroute.  Spent time before the flight to Addis, investigating every nook and cranny of the non operative  Addis Abba-Djibouti Railroad.  There was a small bus station in the main building and a number of hangers-on about.  I suspect they were former employees who had no place else to go.

At Addis, some crashed and some continued sight seeing.  I did a combination of wandering about, crashing and making use of the hotel computer - I had some 700 Emails, most to b deleted.  Injera at a local restaurant which featured music and dancing - why does already audible music have to be amplified? Then to another hotel for an hour’s sleep before catching the Four AM flight to Cairo.

Food:  You don’t go to Africa for the food.  Other than several of the better hotels, basic.  I did vegetarian along with some fish and chicken.  Cheese omelets, some better and some worse,  got me through breakfasts. 

Accommodations:  From sleeping out in an Afar hut with facilities down the road to  the four star Asmara Palace and everything in between.  Clean sheets, plumbing  and water, not always hot.  Rarely, more than a night per place.  My favorite was the Negash Lodge at Walisso, Ethiopia - another Afar style unit amidst trees and wildlife, this one with conveniences.

Tour:  Spiekermann Travel Service Inc:  fast paced with little time for wanderings or reflections.  Cost: $8300 inclusive  all meals and in coutry flights -  may get a refund on unused airfare to Somaliland.  I spent little other than about $200 on tips.  Used United frequent flyers miles:  $79.   Cat care: $780.    

Note:  Will be contacting the Ethiopian tour leader re:  a December  Danakil trip - he goes regularly and reports it is now quite safe.