1997 Trip to Asmara
by Don Coston

The following is a very condensed chronicle of my trip back home (to Eritrea) 5/30-6/15/97. My itinerary was Austin, TX-Amsterdam-Cairo-Asmara. For reasons unknown, we (a friend who'd just lost his wife due to an aneurysm in the brain accompanied me) went from Cairo to Addis, then back to Asmara. The Egyptair pilot even announced that we were in Asmara, then corrected himself and said were really in Addis! We got to Asmara, after many hassles in Cairo and the detour. That is a story in itself Finally, Home Again! Got a cab (65 Fiat. A leap in time, since my car in 63 was a 1931 Fiat Balilla). We faded and wheezed our way to town, where we stayed in the Keren Hotel (built 1898) for the duration of the visit. To try to overcome jet lag, we set off on a walking tour, first to find my old rental house in Ghasa Banda. Finally found it, but my huge yard on a corner lot had been divided, with another house placed on it. Would have enjoyed touring it, but no go.

The next day, we rented a 94 Corolla, and I immediately set out for Kagnew Station and Tract C. Tract C had gone native, with civilians or military dependants occupying the barracks. Laundry was hanging from most of the windows. The Top 5 Club was boarded up, as was the theatre and the Oasis Club. First signs of the austerity of the new Eritrean govt.

Next stop, Tract C. Drove into the parking area, which had a sign indicating that the facility was an agricultural experimentation station. I got out and started to take a few pics, when a soldier came running out warning me away. Ok, so we left, with no pics. We toured around town so I could get my bearings (a 35 yr. absence left a lot of gaps in my memory, even tho I'd spent 4 yrs. there.). Went back to the hotel for a nap. Shortly we were called to come back to the car rental/tourism agency. When we got there, there was an elderly Eritrean cop on wheezy little motorbike telling us to follow him to his station. Ok. We get there, and after a 45 min. wait, another cop on a 750cc bike tells us to follow him. Ok. We find ourselves heading back out to Tract C, only we go about halfway and turn off onto a side road which takes us to a huge armored vehicle storage area. The cop finally determines that we're at the wrong place, and we head on back to Tract C. We arrive there and sit around for a while, until Taps. We did the whole bit, attention to colors, etc. .then we are told to follow a ¾ Ton back to an inconspicuous house in town, where we sat for another ½ hour. We're then escorted into what would be best described as a JP court in the USA. After discussion of our perceived sins (photographing a military est.), we were told to follow another ¾ Ton to a real police station. By the way, the discussion of our sins was done in Tigre, Arabic and English. I was only marginally able to follow the Arabic, having been away from it for so long. Our passports were taken from us, with no explanation.

At the police station, we were grilled by a retard who didn't know an American passport from toilet paper. He kept asking if the passports were Russian. After a while, we are sent to another official who spoke very good Arabic, and he and I were able to reach an understanding that my friend and I could return to the hotel for the night (under house arrest), and return to the station at 0700 the next day. Ok. But first, we had to go to the hotel, retrieve our cameras, and bring them back to the cop.

Next morning, we're back at the station, where we are served tea and waited for a while. Then, escorted by the ¾ Ton, we go to the Foreign Ministry offices. Another long wait, and finally we are escorted in to see some very urbane gentlemen who questioned us once again. After he was satisfied that that day's story jibed with the previous one, he explained that all was a mistake, he knew we weren't Russian spies, and he returned our passports and tickets and said we were free to travel anywhere in Eritrea. Thus went our hellish first two days in country. But really, it wasn't so bad. We were treated courteously, and the police even insisted we have tea with them before they sent us back to the hotel for a night of house arrest.

After our official release, we headed for Massawa. By the time we reached the flats, mid afternoon, the car was handling really bad. We limped into town and discovered one of our almost bald tires was also almost flat. Found a tire shop and had it dismounted and repaired. The tube probably had a dozen patches on it already. Cost the princely sum of 5 Birr(about 65 cents) to make the repairs. Found a hotel and decided to go to Gorgussum beach, where I had camped and swam many a night. Bad news: the entire beach had been leased to a single concessionaire, who charged a fee just to swim. Camping was out of the question. Back to Massawa, but first, another flat tire. Finally, into town. There was much devastation from the war, and a Lot of reconstruction going on. The old R&R hotel was being renovated. We found the Trocadero Club, but it seemed to be out of business for the time being. Spent the night in our very nice hotel, and headed back to Asmara.

We made it to Ghinda, only to find the road closed for repairs. Went back to Massawa to restock our beer supply, and returned to Ghinda. Waited there till 1600 when the road reopened, and got back to Asmara at 1645. We decided to go to the Bosch (the main market area of town) for a quick look, and turned in early that evening. The next day, we headed for Keren. The drive was beautiful. Passed several burned out Russian armored vehicles about halfway to Keren. Keren was rather pitiful. The R&R center was trashed out, and the town didn't seem to have the vitality of Asmara. We had a few beers and headed back to Asmara. Picked up a female Peace Corps dink just outside Keren, and discovered we had another tire going flat. We finally made it back, and delivered the Peace Corps gal to her friends at the American Bar.

The high point of the next day was when a pigeon shit on my friend while we were walking back into the Bosch. The next day, our fifth, we took off for Senafe. Just south of Adi Qaieh, we turned off the main road to go to Qohaito to see the ruins. They are over 2500 yrs old, and sit on a sheer escarpment overlooking a valley some 2000 ft. below. When I got back, I found some slides I'd taken there in 64. The view was awesome. I finally found the bakery that made Guinea Rolls that evening. From that day on, we had Guinea Rolls, cheese and beer at least twice a day. I couldn't get enough of that.

We spent the remaining few days simply touring Asmara and checking out different restaurants. We went to the Castello, and I asked for an Arabic-speaking waiter. Lo and behold, out comes Berhane (Happy) Michael, former headwaiter at the Oasis. We had a hell of a reunion that night. He maintains a notebook with names of GI's whom he's met since 74. Asmara was exceptionally clean. Old women with brooms and dustpans were actually sweeping trash from the streets. Street boys approached us only once. There were no beggars to be seen, nor did we see any bar girls. The trip back to the states was almost as screwed up as the trip over, but it was finally over. The trip, including tickets, beer and bribes cost me $3100. It was a truly wonderful two-week trip back in time.