Observations of Asmara
by Mike O'Neill

(Mike was with USAID living and working in Asmara until the recent hostilities took a turn for the worse. He was evacuated recently but is safe - 5/28/2000.)

Asmara continues to amaze me. We were taken to a hole-in-the wall restaurant that I wouldn't have looked at twice if I walked by. We had excellent lentil soup and calf's liver and onions that you could cut with a fork. Great french fries too. Asmara is a collection of these little treasures. The problem is there is no phone book, no English newspaper and in general no way to get info on these places. You have to talk to people, get elaborate directions and wander around for an hour looking for it.

Its raining now. Its always cold when it rains as the sun is cut off. Feels good now and everything smells fresh and clean.

I can't believe how many people know me here now and how often you run into them on the street. I now know how I'm going to die. Don't be surprise to hear I've drown in a thimble cup of arab coffee. I have to be drinking ten cups of this liquid caffeine a day as you can't meet anyone without sharing a cup. Its just not done. The downtown area is awash in coffee shops that also serve what passes as ice cream here. Several have pastry bakeries attached. Damn good pastry shops attached.

I had a boy about ten attach himself to me today downtown and start giving me the spiel about how he needed money for school etc. I finally stopped and asked if thats what Eritrea had fought a war for, so he could beg on the street? An Eritrean overheard me and walked over and clobbered the kid and started screaming at him in Tigre. He then turned and told me that I should just slap them in the face if any of them bothered me again. Then he invited me for coffee. I explained to him why I thought an American slapping a Eritrean kid in public might not go down so well and he just laughed and said as long as I was loud about the fact that I was slapping him because he was begging I would have no trouble. I think I'll pass anyway. They don't have too many beggars here yet but I bet they'll develop in proportion to the foreigners walking around.

The city is at rumor that a war is about to be launched into Sudan. (written in 1997, overtaken by events in 1998) Eritrea is backing the dissident faction and the head of the dissidents has been here in Asmara for the past few months. We've had senior US military officials popping in and out too and making runs to the border. The ruler in Sudan is a real ead case and everyone here can't wait til he's toppled and normal relations are in place. There are 500,000 Eritreans in Sudan who fled during the civil war. The Government of Sudan has refused to allow them to cross back until Eritrea pays a fee for each one’s return. The head of Sudan can't be too smart to try to intimidate a people who fought a thirty year civil war with no outside backing and had to steal all their weapons and ammunition from their enemy. Not smart,,,,not smart at all. Looks like I'll cross Tessenei off my visit list for awhile. The only problem is that Sudan is hand and hand with Iran so some very nasty weapons could be involved. The US Military has identified at least three terrorist training camps near the Sudan/Eritrea border so we have some reason to back the dissidents too. I prefer peace as my momma didn't raise any brave chilen'.

Asmara's a pretty city in a forlorn sort of way. My father-in-law would feel very at home as he lived in Italy for a number of years. The city was basically built by the Italians and their archetectual influence dominates. Houses are villas on small plots with tiny or non-existent gardens. What gardens there are are beautiful riots of color with bouganvilla and golden showers dominating. Yards are surrounded by 8-10 ft solid walls so you really don't see much from the pedestrian level and its a wonderful surprise when you walk through the elaborately artistic metal gates. You can see the Bouganvilla from the outside as its always draped casually over the walls. Another flowering bush is what we called the yesterday-today-tomorrow plant with flowers in three separate colors on the same bush. Palm trees line the major thoroughfares and even my Nairobi favorite, the Euphobia Candelabra is spread throughout the city. It looks like a cactus tree and has a white sap about the consistency of Elmer's GlueAll that if you get it on your skin will raise a burn blister in seconds. Its the favorite food of Rhinos and poachers often cut them down to attract them. The caustic sap is like honey to our horned friends.

The majority of the houses here have been abandoned for the last 15-20 years but there is renovation going on in a large number of them. The question of who owns what is the stickiest one in the country right now as the Italians took land from the Eritreans, the USA passed title to the Ethiopians after WW II and now ownership is being disputed in three directions. The Eritrean Government has a nice thing going as if they decide the land belongs to an Eritrean they charge him 30 years back taxes before turning it back to them otherwise they keep it. Sometimes there's very little difference. Doesn't leave much for fancy renovation for most of them. One by one they are being improved but I won't be here long enough to see the finish.

Traffic moves around the city in the following order of importance. Pedestrians are in the majority and as the whole city is about two miles radius everyone seems to walk during the day whenever they can. Next are the crazy cyclists who must have taken training from the Kamakazi's in WW II. They are everywhere and anywhere and will come shooting out of a side street right to the middle before coasting back to the right curb. Their genes are being removed from the breeding pool on a regular basis so they should not be a long term problem. The Government finally banned bicycles from some of the major roads where the carnage was interferring with car insurance rates too much. Next come the horses and carts that ply most of the fish, meats and fresh vegetables around the city. An incredible amount of goods gets handled everyday by these plodders and most of their traffic is blissfully early in the am. Next are the yellow cabs which have an interesting rate structure. You can have the exclusive use of one to take you anywhere in the city for one rate...Birr 10 ($1.11) or you can get on a main drag and flag one down that has other riders and pay Birr 1 ($.11) to ride as far on that street as you want to go. Three guesses which I take. Private cars are in a definite minority here and most of what you see has Government, Diplomatic or AID licences. There’s plenty of parking all day in the city so Nancy should have an easy time. Both our house and the bank are on or near one of the main streets so its nothing for me to walk or grab a $.11 cab as the bank is about a mile from home.

Shopping is difficult here in that its very time consuming. If you want 15 husehold items chances are that you'll have to go to 12 stores to get them. Most shops are small, about 15 x 15 ft and crammed with an esoteric variety of bric a brac with no order or even relationship. You'll find electric goods in a food store, plumbing supplies in a butchery etc. My favorite is a store that sports a sign saying "Interesting items shop" where you find any thing from slinkies to freezers. You get some great surprises at times. I carried a two pound can of coffee-mate here from SF for my "30 second out of bed" cup of instant I need to start my day. One of the shops I went in last week had coffee-mate on the shelves and I hadn't seen it anywhere else before or since. Nancy better like scavenger hunts as filling the kitchen will be a lot of work.

Eating out is an equally intriguing past-time. Most restaurants here practice something that’s called "green chili surprise". You can have an omelet four times in a row and the fifth time you bite into it and find a handful of diced, very hot, green chilis. I rather enjoy the suspense but people like my dear wife will have a heart attack. The other major quirt here is that it is impossible to order coffee or tea without sugar. It cannot be made without a spoon or two or three in the bottom of the cup. The Englishman working with me ordered six times in two days unsuccessfully and was finally told very seriously if he didn't want sugar then take the coffee as it was and don't stir it. All the sugar is at the bottom so...no problem.

The country has a reasonable selection of fresh vegetables like tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce, carrots, cabbage ....of course, green chilis and......a small but reasonable selection of vegetables. Onions...I forgot onions.

Most people here have at least four languages and English was the last that they learned. There are some pronounciation problems that you have to get used to. "Mixed" is not one syllable, its two ...MIX-Ed. Just like Fixed is Fix-Ed. "Cathedral", where we waste three syllables, is Ca-dral. I know a few words of Tigrina now and last night when I wanted Onions on my beef I asked for Sha-gurt-i. The man just looked at me with that blank stare I have so often myself. I didn't want to give up so I kept saying Shagurti over and over in a louder voice. You did know that if someone doesn't understand you, repetition and volumn helps. Finally the lightbulb went on and he said, "Tigrina!!! Shagurti..Onions!!" I saw him whispering to others while I was eating and have no doubt he was warning all of them to be careful as I was fluent in the language. The poor guy had probably reviewed all his vocabulary words in English, Italian, Arabic, Tigre and French before he got to Tigrinya and found it. He left the most unlikely til last. Few foreigners have ever mastered Tigrinya. I'm up to six words and am pacing myself. I also asked for Couvosier Cognac last night and got the "stare". I finally got up, went behind the bar and picked (or should I say pick-ed?) up the bottle. "Oh!! Co-vy-zor" he said so Covyzor it is. Two years of this and I'm going to really confuse them in California when I get back.

Language is probably the single biggest negative aspect behind this whole assignment. You should know that I'm a master linguist having an extensive vocabulary of Gaelic swear words at my disposal (3) and having worked up to at least forty words in Swahili (ok...maybe 25 I could pronounce correctly).

Within my genetic makeup I'm convinced that there is a portion of the brain that I was born without. The situation is exaccerbated here as Tingrinya is not the most melodic language you ever heard. In fact, its one step above drawing your fingernails over a chalk board while at the same time grunting as if your metamucil isn't working. The real problem is that in most areas I've been at it hasn't mattered. Here it does in some very serious ways.

Take coffee breaks for instance. In the bank and throughout the Government of Eritrea, there is a morbid fear that someone working for the Government will get something for nothing. Therefore nothing is for nothing. If you want coffee or tea in the bank you must order it by phone from the bankers club which is in a little shop right next to the bank. To order it you use the bank's internal comm line which makes two tin cans and a string seem like a technical innovation. I developed what I thought was the perfect solution. I would invite one of the staff to my office and then ask them to order and I would pay. As a cuppa is about $.07 it wasn't too big a penalty to pay for effective translation services.

This has worked perfectly until I invited Simon to have coffee with me. Simon is the head of the computer section of the bank and he and I have a lot in common in that I get in trouble on the computer and he bails me out. Simon came in the second time, having been my translator on his first visit, and when I asked him to order, he dug his heels in and told me I would order in Tiginya. He gave me the words and the pronounciation and it wasn't too difficult until the word for "milk" has to be used. That word, "Tsaba" looks simple but requires a hiss/explosion before you get to the first "a". Its hard to describe but I was confident in that it was one word I mastered in the few Tigrina lessons Nancy and I took in Rohnert Park from Saba, a young Eritrean girl who attends Sonoma State University. Nancy could not pronounce it and I gave her a hard time about it.

After practicing I picked up the phone and tried to order. I told her what office was calling and what I wanted, one tea (hade Chi-he) and one coffee with milk (hade bun tsaba) Not knowing what she was getting into, the young lady on the other end responded with something that consisted of 367 syllables delivered in four seconds which left me absolutely and totally confused. Simon rescued me and took the phone, said hello and then after another four seconds, hung up and said, "She wanted you to know that since you're the only American in the bank you don't have to tell her what office to bring it to unless you happen to be in another office and that she admires you for both your attempt to speak Tigrinya and your pronounciation which was very funny and has brightened her day." I asked him to translate what she had said into Tigrinya and write it out for me so I could recognize it the next time someone said the same thing, but he declined as he didn't have enough time.

I forgot to add that when I said the word for milk into the mouthpiece of the phone it required two pieces of kleenex to clean my glasses afterward but I've solved that problem too and am beginning to like black coffee.

The daily four walks to the bank are taking their toll on me. The good news is that my clothes are getting loose. The bad news is that it has nothing to do with my weight. Seems the hotel laundry has found a method of elasticising fabrics and disolving seam threads at the same time. I was walking to the bank day before yesterday and felt a wonderful coolness in my crotch which a little gentle probing identified as a five inch split in my pants, I turned back for the hotel and with every step found the gap becoming bigger. I finally flagged down a cab and as I got in, felt it give way all the way in the back up to the beltline. I was carrying a gym bag which I balanced behind me as I went up the steps to my room. By the time I got there I was, for all intents and purposes, wearing a two piece pair of chaps.

I changed and took the ventilated black slacks to a local tailor and through judicious sign language and the obvious damage he could see, got the message across that I wanted them repaired. I came back after work to a $.85 bill and discovered that one of the problems with sign language is that it is hard to get the concept of "color" across. He had done a fine job of restitching,... which I was sure would last at least a week or one washing, whichever came first. The only problem was that he didn't do a very good job of matching thread color as the thread he used was yellow. It did give an interesting contrast to the black fabric but I resisted the temptation and signed him with the message to remove it or I'd kill him. He finally got the message and gave me a look as if to say, "Why didn't you say so in the first place!" Second time was charm and my pants have been restored til the next laundry day.

One of the other joys here is the electrical outlets you find in the homes and hotels throughout Asmara. they come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes designed to defeat any attempt to plug anything into them. We have run into (so far) two prong round-small, two prong round-large, three prong round-triangle shaped, three prong round-vertical in-line. and three prong square. I'll give you an example.

Richard Magnussen and his wife, Finette arrived the other day and in talking with them I discovered that they had brought with them a coffee pot, immersion heater, video camera, computer, printer, fax machine, hair dryer and electric shaver. I'm rather surprised that their plane got off the ground. Dick is retired and specializes in cooperative law which puts the best of us asleep but seems to thrill him. Its only since he retired that he's gone international" and he accepted his first assignment in Russia a few months ago. He told me about their lousy electricity there that destroyed his printer and fax machine making the whole trip somewhat of a losing proposition for him. I asked him what kind of a transformer he used and he whipped out one of these cheap wave splitters that you buy to run your US hair dryers and shavers overseas. I pointed out to him that on the back, in print the same size we use in loan contracts that tell you all the bad things we do if you don't pay, it states quite clearly under one hundred power magnification, "Do not use on electronic devices". He did. He paid.

For those of you who are uninitiated, a power splitter is not a transformer. A power splitter cuts the bottom off an electrical wave and fools certain stupid appliances like hairdryers, shavers, etc into thinking that they are getting 110v. While it cuts the power in half it does nothing to the amplitude of the wave (the voltage). Electronic products are amplitude responsive and when you plug an appliance that uses 110v into a wave splitter that is plugged into 220v it is said that if you listen closely you can hear it scream. It not only screams but it evacuates its electronic bowels and a noxious odor fills the room leaving you under no illusions that you've killed it. If you are unlucky enough, as Dick was in Russia, your little power supply puts up a spirited defense to this abuse for less than a second which allows the high voltage to get through it to the main cicuit boards. This is the electronic equivalent of throwing a handful of marbles into a running Cuisenart. Neither the marbles nor the circuit board are ever quite the same.

Having initiated Dick into the secrets of international electronics, I then separated his appliances into "stupid" --hairdryer, immersion heater and shaver, the "smart"---printer and fax machine, and the "Genius" computer and video camera that came with adapters that reads "input 110v-240v" and can be plugged in anywhere except a primary power station producing 25,000v. These dual appliance cords, that are always marked, sense what the electric power is and adjust themselves without screaming or bowel evacuation.

Only the smart appliances needed a small transformer so, having placed that on the shopping list, I knew that we only had to solve the problem of how to plug a two prong flat USA plug into a three prong round in-line plug that the hotel had used throughout and was the only place in the world I had ever seen this configuration. We had six US plugs to adapt so, samples in hand, I took Richard to my favorite get anything shop "Asmara TV".

The name "Asmara TV" is a misnomer. Everytime I asked where to get something here I'm told, "try Amara TV". The first time I went there I was skeptical as it has about ten feet of frontage and is ten feet deep. Curiously there were no TV’s on display. There's not too much of anything on the shelves so I felt pretty silly asking for what ever it was I wanted as I could see that they didn't have it. When I asked, the little man behind the counter nodded once and disappeared behind a curtain into the "BACKROOM". This charade has been repeated a number of times now and I'm convinced that the back room is about the size of a CostCo store.

I have yet to walk out without what I came to get. We asked for the small trannsformer and got one immediately at exactly the 50 watts I had requested. Then I showed him the US plug and the Three prong round in-line receptacle. He nodded once, turned to some drawers behind him and faster than the eye could blink, handed me an adapter he had built from four separate adapters plugged together. The first went into the three pong wall socket and accepted two prong round-big, the second converted the two prong round-big to a two prong round-small and the last changed the two prong round-small to a US plug. The whole concoction was four inches long and while light-weight I could just see six of these sticking out from the walls requiring the Magnussons to limbo their way around the rooms. I explained the problem to the salesman and he thought about it for a minute and came back with an extension cord that took six, two prong round small plugs and six two prong round-small to US adapters that I thought was an ingenius solution as now only one plug had to go into the wall.

I went back to their hotel and under the very skeptical eye of Mrs. Magnussen, plugged the four inch adapter and extension cord into the wall and saw the light go on in the extension cord. As I watched, the four inch adapter lost its battle with gravity, sagged...and the light went off. The solution to this I attribute to my living near San Francisco as with a short length of dental floss (waxed and flavored) I suspended the far end of the adapter to the screw on the plate covering the electric receptacle....and it worked!!!! The Golden Gate Bridge visits Asmara. American ingenuity triumps again. I was feeling both tired and pleased with myself and was ready to head for home when Dick grabbed my arm and said, "Can you just run through this one more time?" No jury in the world would have convicted me.