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Went to Eritrea with Tiki (my partner) this past January 2005. Lots of stories to tell. I'll fill you in on some of them. Tiki is also creating a blog if you want to hear his stories. This was his first time visiting Eritrea and it was inspiring to see him fall in love with the country too!
Here is Tiki's blog: http://www.tikiskis.blogspot.com/
Here is my last letter from Eritrea....
Hello Friends and Family!
How are you all doing? Tiki and I have had a pretty exciting trip so far around Eritrea. It has been really interesting and eye-opening. We've learned a lot of stuff about how to get around here and how to survive the confusing systems that exisit here.
When I last wrote we had arrived on their Coptic Christmas and ate until we actually felt ill (and ended up getting sick). Maybe it was the local drink that did it called Sewa (which is made from grains and water)? Tiki was ill with a fever and some other not so fun large intestine issues...and I just had the fun of visiting the bathroom a lot. Now we are both fine.
We decided that after Asmara we would visit Mendefera which is a city that I first stayed in with Peace Corps. I had a family to visit that took care of me for our nine weeks of training in 1997. First we had to figure out how to get there...we could go by bus but because of the freeze on gas/oil sometimes this could be unpredicatable (we might be stuck there for our trip). So we conferred with our lovely hosts (G and Amanda) and decided that the best route would be to rent a car so we could cover all the areas we wanted to see in our short time here. We learned from G who is a VSO (the equivalent to Peace Corps but based in England) that we needed to visit the Ministry of Petrol. They would grant us liters of gas if we asked for it. We asked for 200 liters and received only 80. We were told we must return to get more at another time. We actually had to vist the Ministry of Tourism before the Ministry of Petrol and then the car rental place to be able to rent the vehicle. There were so many hoops to jump through that I felt as if we were in a circus act! This is the way it is here....
Our visit to Mendefera was very worth all the hoops we had to jump through. We arrived to my family's compound in a small village outside of Mendefera and brought coffee and a local drink called Areki (like Ouzo). Coffee is a huge part of the culture here in Eritrea and as most of you know neither Tiki or I drink coffee...this doesn't usually go over very well here. At my family's house we met Hanook and Feroos (the two children that I knew seven years ago) with their two new siblings Saron and Selam. There were no adults there...Feroos the oldest girl (she's 11) offered to make us coffee. I had to explain in my tarzan Tigrinya skills that we didn't drink it...she kept on saying that her mom would return...she is coming...so we waited an hour and played games with the kids...Then we found out that Wubet (the mother) was at the mill (which the family owned). Then I knew that she was working. We left to find a place to stay for the night. We found a place that as PCV we always hung out at called the Semhar Hotel. When we arrived Tiki started talking to a man that was kicked out of Ethiopia during the border war which started in 1998. He was born in Eritrea but had lived in Addis for most of his life. He was sent away from his mother and many family members because he was Eritrean. They arrested him and he spent a night in prison and then was sent to Eritrea. He can't communicate with his mother unless it is through another country...We spent the afternoon talking with him about his experience in the U.S. and Eritrea.
That evening we visited my host sister, Wubet at the Mill. At the mill we saw them making berbere (the spicy red pepper powder), grinding flour and other grains. She invited us over to her house to eat some food around 7pm. Their house is located with a view of the fields of Mendefera where crops are grown...it is the only green we have seen so far since the country has a drought going on too. Wubet called me fat when she saw me (which is seen as a compliment)...it means that I am rich and can afford to eat. I had mentioned to Tiki that she would call me that...and she did. We ate some pasta, injera (local flat bread) and some chicken zigni (hot spicy chicken). It was a feast.
One thing about Eritrea that is part of their culture is to feed people and then to tell them to eat. You might say, "Wow, this tastes good"...then you are told to eat...like stop talking and eat. With a country who has a large amount of people on food aid and famine, I always find this to be ironic and a bit disconcerting. Amanda, our host has mentioned going to villages visiting friends and not seeing any kids/adults starving. There is no problem with people who are overweight here, most people according to our U.S. perspective look trim and fit.
We learned at dinner that the Ethiopians did not make it to Mendefera during the border conflict. All the family is ok and living in other parts of Eritrea...this was a relief for me to hear. They were like a second family to me while I was here. The UN are now a pretty big presence at the border and throughout Eritrea until a peace agreement is signed. The UN has helped to broker this agreement but at this time Ethiopia does not agree with it (since the land that they were fighting over is going to Eritrea). Currently they are at a stalemate.
Right now, I am sitting in a Internet place in Asmara (the capital) and my one hour is up. We are doing fine here....the stories will continue... today we will drive to Keren and Hagaz (where Amanda is doing her field work for her dissertation). I have never been and I can't wait to see it!
Hope you are all doing well!