[Written in Africa]
Our first driver disappeared. He was supposed to take us to Keren but when I called him to get his license details for our travel permit he didn’t answer and we were unable to ever raise him again.
This is not unusual. When someone disappears here you don’t ask too many questions. They’ve probably been arrested for talking shit about the government while drunk, or they’ve quietly skipped the country, or whatever. Best not to enquire too persistently.
So we found another driver and copied his paperwork. This we needed because foreigners have to get a permit to leave the capital, and it must include the name and license details of the driver, the plate numbers of the car, the destination, the amount of time away, accommodation, etc. We can usually get a permit to go to the main tourist places but certainly we’d never get permission to travel anywhere out of the way unless we had a really good reason, which we don’t. ‘Just to have a bit of a sticky beak’ doesn’t cut it.
Keren is a conventional destination so we were allowed to go. On the way there the driver constantly talked politics, which he has a nasty habit of doing.* We can’t answer him, you see. If someone reported that we’d joined in this discussion, we’d be kicked out of the country with, at best, 48 hours’ notice. So I wish he wouldn’t. But he did.
The drive is nerve-wracking. It winds violently through the arid highlands, slightly downwards, along ravines full of cactus. Donkeys, camels, baobabs and mango trees are a common sight. Such is its convoluted, twisting nature that the capital’s main ethnic group claims that the road represents the heart of the neighbouring ethnic group’s heart (the Tigray) – indirect, confusing and dishonest. I’ve asked what kind of road would represent their own, Tigrinya heart, but I’ve never managed to make myself understood. I think it would be a nice, clear, straight, open road, strewn with hidden landmines.
Our cleaner died on this road last year when her bus plunged down the hill. I don’t know the exact spot and I don’t want to know.
We arrived at the hotel and checked in. It is the fanciest in town by far, boasting both running water and, some of the time, Wi-Fi. It is about the fastest in the country but would still be the slowest anywhere else in the world.
My room was okay but one of my colleagues had a problem. When the lady took her there she immediately walked into the bathroom, flushed the toilet twice, and sprayed air freshener. How odd. A few minutes later the reason became clear – there was something wrong with the septic system and the whole room stank of raw sewerage.
My colleague asked for a new room but they said they were full. This was surprising because when we rang to make a booking they’d said it would not be necessary, and the carpark was empty, and there was only one other family to be seen in this two-wing, four-story complex. And when we walked along the corridors all the doors were open, keys in the locks, and no one was there.
My colleague continued to insist. They tried to put her off until the next day but finally relented and relocated her to a room that did not stink of shit.
The three of us went downstairs for lunch. We ordered, but a few minutes later the waitress explained that pizza was no longer available because the power had just gone out. The hotel has a generator but I guess they only put it on when essential, not when there’s hardly anybody staying there. So we ordered something else.
This is a running theme in Eritrea – you have to ask about three or four menu items before you can finally identify one that’s actually available. When we went into town for dinner only about a quarter of the items listed were good to go – and this in the fanciest restaurant.
The next day, the colleague of the stinky toilet and I got up early in order to see the camel market. The hotel called a taxi for us. A fellow called John turned up. He spoke almost no English. We explained through the receptionist that we wanted to hire him for the day, to go to four locations, first the camel market and later in the day to some other places, and what would be his price. He kept irritably rabbiting on and on about who knows what and would not get to the point. After some minutes we feared things were not moving so we simplified the issue, asking just to go to the camel market. Finally we got a price and were on our way.
He took us to the main market in town and drove around for a while, confused. I’d been there before so I knew the livestock were sold in a different market, just out of town on the other side, but I couldn’t remember exactly where. I tried to convince him that it was the other market we were after. He talked to some locals, and began driving off in a different direction. We ended up in an open area outside town but it was not a camel market. He drove back again, slowing to peer up each side street as though looking for camels. When we were just about back at the original market my colleague and I agreed that it was time to give up and we asked him to just take us back to the hotel, for the same price.
When we got back he got out and started insisting to the receptionist that he’d taken us to the right place but that the camel market would not start until later because it was a holiday. I tried to explain that I’d been there before and it was definitely a different place, but after ten minutes I realized I was making a really stupid mistake: bothering to argue with an Eritrean.
I was getting hungry and wanted to get away from the whole, fruitless dispute. I said to the receptionist, okay, maybe I made a mistake, it was a misunderstanding, we’ll pay him and be done with it. He did not take this well. I tried to give him the money but he thrust it away angrily and stormed off.
This is exactly the nature of the President, except that he gets to torture and kill anyone who dares openly disagree with him, or to not agree fervently enough. Countries are the way they are for a reason.
We had breakfast. One out of three of our orders was correct, though we were the only ones there.
We headed off again, this time three in number and with a new driver. This fellah drove a hard bargain but was okay once we got going. We were heading to a famous religious site when . . . hey, what’s that? It’s the camel market! And it was in a different place, just as I’d remembered. We had a look around. There were no camels for sale that day – we were probably too late – but plenty of steers, goats and sheep.
We saw the Black Mary (a Catholic Mary apparition in a baobab tree), and the Commonwealth and Italian war cemeteries from WWII. It was bloody hot, so we got back in the early afternoon and relaxed.
That night when we walked into town for drinks, kids were yelling at us the whole way. “China! China!” That’s the local slang for any foreigner. “Give me money! Give me chocolate!” It was relentless. Some of them followed us for blocks. Occasionally an adult would scold them but mostly they were unsupervised, or their parents didn’t take any notice. We reflected: if we’d ever begged a stranger for anything back when we were kids, we’d not have sat down for a week! Imagine the shame. The trouble is, the fucking UN people hand out lollies and stuff on the rare occasions they venture out among the common folk, and think they’re heroes. So when we Dirt People, who are also white, go about our normal lives, the locals think we’re walking vending machines just like the rich stupid UN types, and they treat us accordingly.
The power went off on the way back, which was perfect because I’d been bragging about my headlamp and I finally got a chance to use it. The road was pitch black otherwise, with a frightening drop-off on the side. Locals laughed at me because they’d never seen anything like my headlamp before but I didn’t care. I’d rather look like a clownish alien than fall in a ditch. I boasted that I was always prepared for anything: in my backpack, which is safety yellow with florescent tape attached, I permanently have spare batteries, toilet paper, antibiotics, Imodium, anti-nausea pills, Ibuprofen, spare shoelaces, my bike lights, tissues, a peg, alcohol handwash, a flash drive with all my files except ones like this which I keep hidden, and a spare handkerchief.
I felt a bit crook so I went straight to bed when we got back. I couldn’t sleep for a long time because the power was still off and the fan wouldn’t work. It was much hotter than I’m used to, being at a lower elevation. I opened the window and then I was bothered by a mosquito for a long time. I couldn’t turn on a light to catch the bastard. I put on the headlamp, but by then I was exhausted and fell asleep anyway.
I woke up covered in bites and feeling a little unwell. I got up to go to the toilet and, in the act of standing, shat my pants. I made it to the toilet and the remainder went where it was supposed to go. Accustomed to this situation from India, I had a shower, rinsed the boxers, hung them up to dry for a bit, and later threw them out. No point trying to salvage anything from that.
The diarrhea went on for quite a while and I was incapacitated and wondering how I would make it home the following day. An accident in the taxi would be bad, and there were no toilets en route on the two-hour drive. My stores of Imodium were almost used up because I was unable to find any available during my last trip out of country to Ethiopia, so I decided not to take any until the last minute.
Mr. Prepared, hey.
Lying in bed late into the morning pondering this, I heard a commotion outside. A huge swarm of children were yelling, “China! China! Give me money! Give me chocolate!” It went on for a good half hour. Had a bunch of foreigners arrived from somewhere? What was going on? I later found out that my colleagues had been drinking coffee outside and a mob of local children had stormed the hotel compound, unchallenged by the customarily catatonic staff, and had bothered them for ages until their firm voices and implied threats were employed in order to get rid of them.
Don’t these kids have parents?
Then we had another problem. We’d needed to give our travel permit to the hotel. They have to keep it on file in case the government checks up on what those bloody dastardly no-good foreigners are up to this time, which they often do. But we had no copies to take home with us in case we were stopped, and cars are almost always stopped along that stretch of road, it being one of the few stretches of road in the country. The hotel was unable to make a copy for us because their copier was, of course, broken.
If we were caught travelling without the permits on us, even if we had a really good excuse, photos of the originals on our phones, and a letter from the hotel explaining the problem, we’d most likely be kicked straight out of the country and our driver would lose his hugely expensive (because of import duties) car. So by hook or by crook we’d have to make a copy before we could return.
Our driver arrived and we agreed that he would go into town to try to get a copy made somewhere else, and we would stay behind as collateral for the originals, which the hotel could not afford to lose. The driver was a long time coming back and we realized it was because the town’s power was off again, meaning any copier available would not work.
I thought, not for the first time, that I passionately dislike this country.
An hour later he returned, copies in hand. He’d found a place with a generator! I took my remaining Imodium and we were on our way.
The talk of politics and our grunted, non-committal responses continued. He resented, among other things, having to purchase the government-monopoly car insurance. It was hugely expensive but in the case of an accident it would only cover around half the cost of repairs. Not having it would result in the car being confiscated, and there was no alternative provider because Socialism. What a scam.
I said to him, you should be careful what you say, even to foreigners. Complaints like that could get you disappeared. He said yeah, his friend had been asked a bunch of questions by a foreigner while out driving, he’d answered frankly, and then later his comments ended up on a foreign news channel! The piece of shit journo had secretly recorded him the whole time. I asked him what channel but he couldn’t remember. Our driver had been the one to see it on the news and recognized the voice. He went straight to his friend’s house and told him what had happened. His friend got scared, packed a few things, got out of the city and a day later he was in Sudan, never to return.
I wish I knew which news agency that was.
There were two checkpoints on the way home but one was unmanned and the other was manned by a mate of our driver’s who waved us through.
That was what I did on the holidays.
* Security services: I have cleverly changed the details of this story in such a way that if you try to arrest our taxi driver, you’ll instead be torturing and murdering a pro-government driver who I hold a grudge against. I know you won’t be able to resist, though. Have at ‘im!
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