Mike's Final Letter from Asmara

Hi there Kagnewites,

Four years and ten months … that’s what it will have been when I leave here on October 30th. I’m experiencing some real mixed emotions right now. After the terrorist actions of September 11th, at least five senior people in my company suggested strongly that I close up early and get back to the USA. It was only when I discovered that if I didn’t take 12.5 days of vacation time before the 31st of October that I would lose them that made me consider leaving early. I finally capitulated and told the firm I would leave on the 11th of October. I accelerated my close out activities and by the 5th of October I was having the movers pack me up and planned to move into my home away from home, the Sunshine Hotel. I was the first person to check into the hotel the morning after their opening cocktail party in 1996 so it was only fitting that this is where I should finish up. After being mentally prepared to leave, I was extended at the last minute to the end of the month much to the disappointment of my family especially my granddaughter who then had to construct another chart to color in the squares till my return.

I am sorry to leave Asmara or rather I should say I’m sorry to leave my friends here. Asmara itself, after the mass exodus of expats during 1998 as a result of the war, is a pretty boring place to be. Most days find me sound asleep at 9pm and up on the internet at 4am. There is no nightlife here … or I should say, none for people of my advanced years. I have to admit that the UN troops don’t seem to be bored. Wonder what they know that I don’t?

There are a number of things I won’t miss. I won’t miss sleeping with a fan on in my room every night aimed over the head of the bed to spoil the aerodynamics of the high altitude mosquitoes that make sleeping without it miserable. Nancy tried spraying them with the local bug juice daily but it was so potent we figured our internal insecticide levels were reaching toxic proportions.

I will miss our house and its flat patio roof that overlooks this beautiful city and gave me a lot of quality time to relax and think. I’ll miss the downtown view of Asmara dominated by the Catholic cathedral which I see every morning when I get up. I’ll miss the three balconies of this house where you could sit and read and enjoy the sounds of children at play. I won’t miss the tiny hot water heater or the ruses that Nancy used to make sure she got most of it for her bath. God, she was good at that! I won’t miss the power outages or the fact that for the past four months I have gotten exactly no water from the city water pipes and still get billed for what I didn’t get. I have to order a truck full of water once a week at a cost of $14 which seems reasonable to me until you imagine how you do it when you only make $100 per month as the majority of Eritreans do.

I won’t miss the Huzzahs at the five main mosques of the city waking me between 4 and 5am in the morning with their call to prayers and I won’t miss the cathedral bells that compete with them at times. Organized religion and a good night’s sleep do not seem to be compatible concepts here.

I won’t miss the hill leading to our house. Even after five years at this altitude I still feel it by the time I reach the top. I remember in the beginning I would get to the house and be unable to talk for at least 5 to 10 minutes while catching my breath. I have made progress since then. Now my heart races for a few minutes and then I recover. I would have been worried about this but saw that Nancy was just as uncomfortable with it and she is certainly in a lot better shape than I am. Prior to moving here Nancy was going to bring a stair-stepper exercise machine to use here. What a joke that would have been! Aside for the hill our house is on three levels forcing us to do a minimum of about 15 flights of stairs a day. Couple that with the double flight I do to get to my office on the bank’s mezzanine, repeated six to eight times a day, and the last piece of equipment I would need is a stair-stepper.

I won’t miss my stalker. I haven’t seen hide nor hair of him in over six months now and I can only hope he’s pushing daisies rather than making someone else’s life miserable. I feel sorry for anyone having to live in the paranoid delusional world he created for himself. He took a lot of the fun of walking to work in the morning away but did get me trained to watch for terrorists here during this tense period after the World Trade Center disaster.

I will definitely miss the honesty of the Eritreans which allows me to walk anywhere in the city at any time without looking over my shoulder. (except for my stalker) I’ll miss the shopkeepers who have run after me to give me back a few coins I had inadvertently left behind. I’ll actually miss the 80 year old plus Eritrean gentleman who for almost five years has tried to sell me coins from Mussolini’s Italy and Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia without success but still has a smile on his face whenever he sees me. Before I leave I am going to let him find me and buy the first two coins he shows me. Patience like that needs to be rewarded. I won’t miss the hundreds of little boys about 10 to 12 who attach themselves to you like limpet mines and try to sell you “softies”, individually wrapped small packages of Kleenex or its local equivalent.

I will miss the little girls who play hopscotch on my street especially the one who equates being fat with being rich. How could you help but smile at that logical notion? I won’t miss the little boys who ring the doorbell on Sunday afternoons and then run like hell but it does show that little boys are alike all over the world. I will miss the little boys who thrust burning twigs in front of you on certain nights during the year so that you can leap over it and have good luck for an entire year for a donation of a mere 5 Nakfa, about 30 cents. I will miss, as I mentioned above, the sound of children playing on the streets in the early evening. The sounds that evoked so many good memories of my childhood in Chicago. The sounds that have been lost to the last two generations in the USA thanks to TV and the spawning of enough crazies that you must restrict the outside activities of your young children. I will miss the little 4 to 5 year old boy that used to wait for me on my way to work and walk a block with me while holding my hand. I won’t miss the beggar children who have gotten so much worse since Eritreans were expelled from Ethiopia.

I will miss being called “Taliano” by the children here and being the object of the ultimate test of manhood called, “Shake the hand of the Taliano”. You have to see it to believe it. They all want to shake your hand but act as if there is a chance you will chew it off to the elbow if they aren’t careful. I don’t even dare pretend to scare them as I’m not sure they wouldn’t have a heart attack if I jumped at them, even in fun.

I’ll miss the airport where you arrive and leave in a completely non-intimidating manner. I won’t miss arriving and departing in the dead of night. I won’t miss being exhausted by the time you get on the plane and are still looking forward to over 20 hours in the air before you see a bed again. I will miss the greetings by my staff when I get back, who really make you feel you were missed.

I’ll miss the members of www.Kagnewstation.com most of whom could probably have written this letter. Little did I know when Rick Fortney first contacted me how many American military and their families there were who had experienced the wonder and hospitality of the Eritreans before they had their own country. I’ll miss answering your questions and doing the searches you asked me to. I’ll really miss meeting the brave few of you who traveled over here to see how much it had changed. You can still reach me at Twigaduma@aol.com which is my email address in California where I’ll be for the next few months at least. I will also miss the legacy they left here in that most Eritreans know more about Classic US Country Music than most Americans would thanks to Kagnew’s radio station.

I’ll miss the open markets here where you are treated exactly like a local and where bargaining is an unknown and unrequired skill. I won’t miss the fact that hesitating to buy something that is in the market may result in you’re never seeing it again and having to do without for the duration. I’ll miss the shoeshine stands and the cheerful work ethic of its inhabitants. I won’t miss the traffic or the unpredictable actions of the Eritrean driver in the land of no rules. I won’t miss the cyclists who weave back and forth from the edge of the roads forcing very close calls on head on collisions between cars and trucks. Though fewer in number than any place I’ve been, the only thing that prevents mass slaughter on the highways here is that no one goes over 25mph. I will miss the spectacular scenery you get here when you drive in any direction off the Asmara plateau. I won’t miss the fact that the roads are five inches wider than a car and truck width and the vehicle on the outside has a 1-2000 ft drop about 15 inches from the edge of the road. I won’t miss the car sickness that effects over half the people when you are traveling to Massawa down the switchback roads on the escarpment.

I’ll miss the sidewalk cafes and the nightly promenade up and down the palm tree lined Liberty Street. I’ll miss the teenagers on the steps of the Cathedral every evening during the summer, speaking at least a dozen languages among themselves. These “children of the Diaspora” live in many countries for ten months a year and then travel here to learn what being an Eritrean is all about.

I’ll miss my favorite restaurants, The China Star, The Mask, The Legesse Hotel and The Rendezvous. I won’t miss the ptomaine palaces of the Intercontinental Hotel, Milanos or some of the others who make me sick two out of three times I went to them. Milanos was the only restaurant that made me sick three for three and lest you think I am into self inflicted punishment, I made up my mind not to go back after the second bout but then was invited out by one of the officers of the Central Bank and that’s where we wound up. I let him order for me and was disgusted to see them bring a bowl of meat where the only heat it had ever seen was the 98.6 degrees body temperature of the waiter carrying it. They have a very hot sauce to soak it in that is supposed to disinfect the raw pieces to make them safe. It didn’t.

I won’t miss the 1001 forms of dysentery that I have sworn to write a book about. It seems that if it exists, then I’ve had it or know someone who has. I won’t miss the absence of doctors which makes even simple illnesses frightening. I won’t miss the medical books we use that are supposed to substitute but only confuse and worry you. I won’t miss the fact that if a symptom calls for one of ten different medications, the pharmacies here will be lucky to have one of them and that may be outdated.

I won’t miss the 120 degree plus temperatures of Tessenei on the border of Eritrea and Sudan. I will miss the hospitality of the people of Tessenei who have nothing to speak of but are always prepared to offer you half of it. I won’t miss drinking seven liters of water a day out there and still not being able to urinate. It was frightening to lose that much fluid through simple evaporation as that is a one way ticket to kidney stones. I will miss the bar-b-qued sheep and camel cooked on top of 80 gallon oil drums and the sweet mandazis that were better than any donut in the morning. I’ll miss the strong sweet tea with cloves and cardamom that started my mornings there. I won’t miss the thick arab coffee that kept me awake all night whenever I had it.

I will definitely miss Habte, my Eritrean secret service taxi driver who always knew when I arrived here and was waiting to greet me. Where he got his information, I’ll never know. I’ll miss Gebremichael, our plumber who will work for five hours on repairing the various problems we’ve had and apologetically hand me a bill for Nakfa 50, about $3.75. When Nancy came for a few months this year both Habte and Gebremichael showed up the morning after she arrived and gave her a big hug. Nancy remarked that only in Eritrea could you be hugged by your taxi driver and plumber and not be surprised. Try that in Santa Rosa and someone will wind up with a fat lip.

I’ll miss the three “import” supermarkets of Wickianos, Sanay and Alpha where at least some imported goods were available at some times. I’ll miss the Red Oven bakery who in the land of controlled prices and sameness managed to produce an outstanding bread and pastries.

I won’t miss the one-legged victims of land mines that seem to increase every year or the fact that exploring the countryside is out because of the million plus mines that are still out there. I won’t miss the motorized wheel-chairs of the ex-fighters who seem to still be at war with someone or something. I will miss the quiet dignity of the war widows who earn their pensions by sweeping the streets and sidewalks everyday. Most visitors, especially those familiar with other cities in Africa are struck by the neatness and cleanliness of Asmara.

This has been a good assignment, in fact about as good as it gets. We have made good friends here who will be missed. Time for me to go looking for the next adventure. Anybody got any ideas?

P.S. After sending out my last missive and finalizing my “stuff” for the ocean shipment, I was walking to work this morning and what to my wondering eyes did show up but …. yea … you guessed it! My stalker!! After a six months plus absence, there he was, walking or should I say shuffling toward me on Liberty Avenue. He was half a block away and I toyed with the idea of crossing the street but decided the hell with it and doubled my fists as he approached. He got 20 feet in front of me and his head came up and he looked right at me, through me and by me, all in the same moment. No recognition at all!! He walked by without batting an eyelash or mumbling even one four letter word. I actually stopped and watched him walk away from me. His dementia had obviously worsened, hopefully, to the point where his demons had been put away and the poor man could have some peace. Such a sad, sad way to exit this world.

Regards Mike